Category: Humanity

From Particles to People: The Laws of Nature and the Meaning of Life

By Sean Carroll | October 22, 2012 6:19 am

That’s the charmingly grandiose title of a talk I gave at The Amazing Meeting this past July, now available online. I hope that the basic message comes through, although the YouTube comments indicate that the nitpicking has already begun in earnest. There’s a rather lot of material to squeeze into half an hour, so some parts are going to be sketchy.

There are actually three points I try to hit here. The first is that the laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely understood. There is an enormous amount that we don’t know about how the world works, but we actually do know the basic rules underlying atoms and their interactions — enough to rule out telekinesis, life after death, and so on. The second point is that those laws are dysteleological — they describe a universe without intrinsic meaning or purpose, just one that moves from moment to moment.

The third point — the important one, and the most subtle — is that the absence of meaning “out there in the universe” does not mean that people can’t live meaningful lives. Far from it. It simply means that whatever meaning our lives might have must be created by us, not given to us by the natural or supernatural world. There is one world that exists, but many ways to talk about; many stories we can imagine telling about that world and our place within it, without succumbing to the temptation to ignore the laws of nature. That’s the hard part of living life in a natural world, and we need to summon the courage to face up to the challenge.

Or at least, so you will hear me opine if you click on the link. Curious as to what people think.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Humanity, Philosophy, Science, Top Posts

Moving Naturalism Forward

By Sean Carroll | October 11, 2012 11:09 am

I’m very excited about a workshop I’ll be at later this month: Moving Naturalism Forward. By “naturalism” we mean the simple idea that the natural world, obeying natural laws, is all there is. No supernatural realm, spirits, or ineffable dualistic essences affecting what happens in the universe. Clearly the idea is closely related to atheism (I can’t imagine anyone is both a naturalist and a theist), but the focus is on understanding how the world actually does work rather than just rejecting one set of ideas.

Once you accept that we live in a self-contained universe governed by impersonal laws of nature, the hard work has just begun, as we are faced with a daunting list of challenges. The naturalist worldview comes into conflict with our “folk” understanding of human life in multiple ways, and we need to figure out what can be salvaged and what has to go. We’ve identified these particular issues for discussion:

  • Free will. If people are collections of atoms obeying the laws of physics, is it sensible to say that they make choices?
  • Morality. What is the origin of right and wrong? Are there objective standards?
  • Meaning. Why live? Is there a rational justification for finding meaning in human existence?
  • Purpose. Do teleological concepts play a useful role in our description of natural phenomena?
  • Epistemology. Is science unique as a method for discovering true knowledge?
  • Emergence. Does reductionism provide the best path to understanding complex systems, or do different levels of description have autonomous existence?
  • Consciousness. How do the phenomena of consciousness arise from the collective behavior of inanimate matter?
  • Evolution. Can the ideas of natural selection be usefully extended to areas outside of biology, or can evolution be subsumed within a more general theory of complex systems?
  • Determinism. To what extent is the future determined given quantum uncertainty and chaos theory, and does it matter?

(Massimo Pigliucci has already started blogging about some of the questions we’ll be discussing.)

To hash all this out, we’re collecting a small, interdisciplinary group of people to share different perspectives and see whether we can’t agree on some central claims. We have an amazing collection of people Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Humanity, Philosophy, Science, Top Posts

Neil Armstrong

By Sean Carroll | August 25, 2012 1:38 pm

Has died at age 82. Perhaps to honor his memory we can resolve as a society to continue to do inspiring things.


Many Kinds of Smart (A Continuing Series)

By Sean Carroll | October 31, 2011 9:14 am

Steve Hsu points us to an NYT op-ed by Walter Isaacson, in which he ponders the crucial question, “Was Steve Jobs smart?” Isaacson has written biographies of both Jobs and Albert Einstein, so he should know from smart.

One might think that the answer is an obvious “yes,” and Isaacson admits this. But then he tells this anecdote:

But I remember having dinner with him a few months ago around his kitchen table, as he did almost every evening with his wife and kids. Someone brought up one of those brainteasers involving a monkey’s having to carry a load of bananas across a desert, with a set of restrictions about how far and how many he could carry at one time, and you were supposed to figure out how long it would take. Mr. Jobs tossed out a few intuitive guesses but showed no interest in grappling with the problem rigorously.

And what are we to conclude from this?

So was Mr. Jobs smart? Not conventionally.

Arrrgh. I’m not sure what kind of conventionality is being invoked, but I don’t want any part of it.

We all know about Steve Jobs’s accomplishments. Built a major multinational corporation, created (or at least nurtured) several different devices that noticeably changed our everyday lives, became an icon for user-friendly and design-savvy technology. And he didn’t do it all just by getting lucky, or even by simple hard work. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Humanity, Top Posts

I'm Too Smart To Understand Human Beings

By Sean Carroll | July 5, 2011 9:28 am

Jen McCreight blogs about giving a talk at a meeting of Mensa, the “international high-IQ society.” Worth reading in its own right, but I was struck by one anecdote in particular: the color-coded stickers that indicated huggability.

  • Green = Hug me!
  • Yellow = Ask me first
  • Red = Don’t touch me

You read this correctly. A group of self-selected high-IQ people feels the need to have stickers on their name tags to let strangers know whether it’s okay to come up and hug them. As Jen put it: “I originally didn’t put any stickers on because I had no idea what they meant, but after being hugged out of nowhere by a complete stranger, my badge quickly looked like this:”

I don’t think the stickers are a bad idea; if they help people figure out appropriate ways to behave, it’s all good. But I can’t help but think that there are many other groups of people who would manage to negotiate this particular social minefield without the help of any stickers at all. There are many different ways to be “intelligent.”


The World Changes, We Stay Largely the Same

By Sean Carroll | May 2, 2011 12:07 pm

One thing is pretty much guaranteed, in the wake of a big-time news event: people are going to make it about themselves.

When Osama bin Laden is killed in a raid in Pakistan, politically-inclined folks in the U.S. are immediately going to wonder how this impacts the 2012 elections. Obama supporters are going to celebrate a bit more readily than they would have if the same thing had happened when George W. Bush was in office. Obama’s opponents are going to be a bit more skeptical, likewise. (From Free Republic: “We got him in spite of Obama, he’s more interested in getting our military Homosexualized than he is about any war on terror.”) Or they will use the opportunity to make some sort of political statement amidst the crowd outside the White House.

People from NYC and DC and elsewhere who lost friends and family on 9/11 might attain a bit of closure. Pakistanis will both worry about and celebrate how the operation went down. In China, some will mourn the loss of a strong anti-American presence, while others will lump bin Laden in with their own Politburo as forces of evil in the world. People who think about social media will focus on the way the news bypassed traditional channels. Wolf Blitzer will make sure a national TV audience understands that this was big enough news to drag him from home into the studio.

All that is okay. When news hits, we don’t immediately leap from receiving new information to having a fully developed and highly nuanced set of reactions. If people naturally interact with the news in terms of their pre-existing feelings and interests, let them. Some people are going to celebrate the death of a terrorist, while others will recoil at celebrating the death of anybody. It should be fine either way; let people have their moments.

I have no idea what the ramifications of the raid on bin Laden’s compound are going to be for international relations. Generally I lean toward the side that we focused on one guy because it’s useful to personalize the enemy in wartime, not because bin Laden himself was the real problem. But what do I know? It could be that he served a crucial symbolic or even operational role, and that this will really diminish the scope of al-Qaeda terrorism. Or maybe it will serve as a rallying cry, and things will get worse. I suspect that going through security at airports is going to be even more intrusive than usual for the next few months.

The social-media cognoscenti certainly do have something to talk about. In the soon-to-be-immortal words of Bill the Lizard, “I heard about 9/11 on the radio, bin Laden’s death on Twitter.” Me too. We did actually turn on the TV when it became clear that big news was coming. What a contrast; the internet was interesting and lively, while the TV pundits swerved between ponderous and clueless.

And, naturally, the attack itself was live-tweeted. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Humanity, Top Posts, World

My Five Dollar Bills Are Crazier Than Your Five Dollar Bills

By Julianne Dalcanton | June 9, 2010 9:39 am

Exhibit A: Still fighting the Civil War, one Lincoln five dollar bill at a time.

five dollar bill confederate

(FYI, “Deo Vindice” is from the Great Seal of the Confederacy, and is loosely translated by our good friends at Wikipedia as “With God our Vindicator”)

Exhibit B: Showing that crazy deep emotion is not restricted to one end of the political spectrum.


Poor Hillary, getting robed like that.

Kidding aside, I’m fairly moved by the thought that there are people who have such a depth of frustration that scrawling on currency feels like the only voice they have — one may find the source of that frustration repellent or deranged, but that feeling of impotence in the face of what seems like the end of the world is something most of us have felt at one time or another (Gulf oil spill, anyone?).

(FYI, These two examples are just the ones that happened to pass through my hands during the past few months, but many more examples have been cataloged here and here, the latter being a compendium maintained by a burrito restaurant, of all things.)

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Humanity, Politics

The disintegration of memory

By Daniel Holz | April 3, 2010 8:35 pm

Given that it’s Easter Sunday, I thought it would be particularly appropriate to mention survivors of the Holocaust. Sean has been arguing (here and here) that science does not give us morality. And, as the Pope and the Catholic Church have resoundingly demonstrated, God doesn’t seem to provide us with morality either. None of this means that we shouldn’t strive to make the world a better place. Nor that we can’t say that the Holocaust was evil.

Maciek Nabrdalik has been photographing survivors of the Nazi concentration camps. Nabrdalik is quoted in a New York Times blog: “I believe that by looking into their eyes, a sharper perspective will appear and perhaps help us understand the nature of the enormity of this atrocity a little bit better,” Mr. Nabrdalik said. “Understand it on a human scale, that is.”

The photographs show only shining faces, surrounded by an encroaching blackness. Perhaps the blackness represents the horrors they have experienced. Perhaps the blackness represents the fact that the number of survivors is dwindling, and soon there’ll be no one left to remind us of one of the worst examples of man’s inhumanity to man. All that will be left is darkness.

by Primo Levi (Holocaust survivor)

You who live secure
In your warm houses
Who return at evening to find
Hot food and friendly faces:

Consider whether this is a man,
Who labours in the mud
Who knows no peace
Who fights for a crust of bread
Who dies at a yes or a no.
Consider whether this is a woman,
Without hair or name
With no more strength to remember
Eyes empty and womb cold
As a frog in winter.

Consider that this has been:
I commend these words to you.
Engrave them on your hearts
When you are in your house, when you walk on your way,
When you go to bed, when you rise.
Repeat them to your children.
Or may your house crumble,
Disease render you powerless,
Your offspring avert their faces from you.


Imagine a World Where Everyone Typed in CAPS LOCK

By Sean Carroll | March 29, 2010 8:57 am

There used to be a Twitter account called Best of Wikipedia — it was a wonderful source for quirky things you might not have chanced upon in your normal browsing. Alas, it’s been quiet since November, so we’re left to our own devices. For some reason or another I was reading about Scholasticism, the dominant approach to teaching and learning in medieval Europe. Its early days came to pass during the Carolingian Renaissance in the late 700’s under Charlemagne.

Besides uniting Central Europe, Charlemagne was also a patron of learning, and used his influence to bring scholars from across the continent to his court. Most importantly, he recognized that the decline of literacy and the splintering of Latin into mutually incomprehensible regional dialects caused difficulties for the administration of an empire, so he ordered that every abbey in his domain should start a school. The idea of widespread schooling was a novel one at the time, and the long-term impact of this decision is probably incalculable. Sure, most of the scholarship may have been devoted to the interpretation of classic texts rather than the production of new knowledge, but you have to think that all that learning helped lay the groundwork for the eventual climb out of the Dark Ages. Start people thinking, and you never know where they will go.

Alcuin So I was especially fascinated to read about Alcuin of York, one of Charlemagne’s greatest scholars. He was a respected teacher in Northumbria before being brought to court, where he had an enormous effect on the scholarship — establishing the liberal arts (the trivium and quadrivium) as the basis for the curriculum, and convincing Charlemagne not to put pagans to death if they refused to convert. He also produced a textbook of math problems with solutions, from which we learn that medieval word problems were more colorful than those we have today — these include the problem of the three jealous husbands and the problem of the wolf, goat and cabbage.

But it’s clear to me what Alcuin’s greatest achievement really was: he’s the guy who invented lower case letters. Can you imagine a world in which everything was written in ALL CAPS? Every time we read a crazy person ranting on the internet, we should give thanks to Alcuin that not everybody sounds like that.


Witnessing suffering

By Daniel Holz | January 21, 2010 10:01 am

While we’re on the topic of charities, it seems appropriate to note that this is a particularly opportune time to donate to an exceedingly worthwhile charity: Doctors Without Borders. They are doing amazing work around the world, and the current tragedy in Haiti is no exception.

port-au-prince exodus (Maggie Steber for NYT)Note that Doctors Without Borders (more generally known as Médecins Sans Frontières) is not the same as Doctors of the World (Médecins du Monde; now called HealthRight). It’s somewhat ironic, but the Doctors couldn’t agree about how to go about saving the world. So MDM split off in 1980 (and is roughly 1/40th the size). The critical issue was the degree to which “witnessing” was a part of their mission. On the one hand, if you want to be able to go anywhere that you’re needed, it’s wise to be explicitly apolitical. Your goal is simply to help the sick and relieve suffering. On the other hand, if you witness atrocities, it seems incumbent upon you to tell the world what has happened. If you are on the ground in the midst of genocide, is it really appropriate to stay silent? Both groups “bear witness” to atrocities, but MSF is more conservative, while MDM is more aggressive.

I think strong arguments can be made for both approaches, and I don’t think you can go wrong supporting either organization. As always, it makes sense to check out any intended recipient of largess on Charity Navigator. Both organizations get essentially identical, stellar scores (implying that the vast majority [~90%] of what you donate goes to people in need, and not to fatten the pay of executives, or into the pockets of Madison Avenue).

Haiti is a tragedy of epic proportions. Here is a way to help.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Rights, Humanity

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