Search Episodes
Listen, Share, & Support
Listen to the latest episode
Subscribe via iTunes
Subscribe via RSS
Become a fan
Follow on Twitter

Support Us:

Please consider making a donation to help make this podcast possible. Any contribution, great or small, helps tremendously!

Subscribe to E-Mail Updates

Related Readings
  • Answers for Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to A More Meaningful Life
    Answers for Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to A More Meaningful Life
    by Massimo Pigliucci
  • Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk
    Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk
    by Massimo Pigliucci
  • Denying Evolution: Creationism, Scientism, and the Nature of Science
    Denying Evolution: Creationism, Scientism, and the Nature of Science
    by Massimo Pigliucci

RS 162 - Sean Carroll on "Poetic Naturalism"

Release date: June 26th, 2016

Sean Carroll

Naturalism is the stance that everything that exists in the universe arises from "natural" causes, of the sort observable by science -- not supernatural ones. It's practically a foundational tenet of skepticism. But does it imply that there can be no meaning, or purpose, or morality in the universe?

This episode features physicist Sean Carroll, author of the recent bestseller The Big Picture: on the Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself. Sean and Julia talk about the new "ism" he introduces in the book, "poetic naturalism," and how it attempts to resolve the apparent conflict between science on the one hand, and things like morality, free will, consciousness, and meaning on the other.

Sean's new Book: "The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself"

Sean's Pick: "The Princess and The Philosopher" by Andrea Nye

Podcast edited by Brent Silk


Full Transcripts 


Reader Comments (20)

I'd love to hear someone on the Rationally Speaking podcast acknowledge that Sam Harris and his supporters (okay, Massimo was mentioned and panned) aren't the only people arguing for objective morality. The research I've done suggests that objective morality is assumed to be the case in academic philosophy. I'd recommend looking into Simon Blackburn, Paul Boghossian, Timothy Williams, and Louis Pojman, for starters. It would be only fair to steelman the arguments for objective morality, or at least acknowledge the flaws that are inherent in a belief in relative morality.
June 27, 2016 | Unregistered Commenteranonymous
Paul Boghossian is Silver professor of philosophy at New York University, where he was Chair of the Department for ten years (1994�"2004) and responsible for building it into one of the top philosophy programs in the world.[1] His research interests include epistemology, the philosophy of mind, and the philosophy of language. He is Director of the New York Institute of Philosophy and research professor at the University of Birmingham.

Timothy Williamson is a British philosopher whose main research interests are in philosophical logic, philosophy of language, epistemology and metaphysics.

He is currently the Wykeham Professor of Logic at the University of Oxford, and Fellow of New College, Oxford. He was previously Professor of Logic and Metaphysics at the University of Edinburgh (1995�"2000); Fellow and Lecturer in Philosophy at University College, Oxford (1988�"1994); and Lecturer in Philosophy at Trinity College, Dublin (1980�"1988). He was president of the Aristotelian Society from 2004 to 2005.

He is a Fellow of the British Academy (FBA),[1] the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters,[2] Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (FRSE) and a Foreign Honorary Fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

Simon Blackburn is a British academic philosopher known for his work in metaethics, where he defends quasi-realism, and in the philosophy of language; more recently, he has gained a large general audience from his efforts to popularise philosophy. He retired as professor of philosophy at the University of Cambridge in 2011, but remains a distinguished research professor of philosophy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, teaching every fall semester. He is also a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, and a member of the professoriate of New College of the Humanities. He was previously a Fellow of Pembroke College, Oxford and has also taught full-time at the University of North Carolina as an Edna J. Koury Professor. He is a former president of the Aristotelian Society, having served the 2009�"2010 term.

Louis Paul Pojman [1935 - 2005] grew up in Cicero, Illinois, where he attended Morton High School and Junior College. He went on to receive a B.S. degree from Nyack College and a B.D degree from New Brunswick Theological Seminary, becoming an ordained minister in the Reformed Church of America. After serving an inter-racial church in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, he returned to seminary, attending Union Theological Seminary at Columbia University in New York where he studied under Reinhold Niebuhr and earned a Ph.D. in Ethics. During this time he received several fellowships to study abroad. In 1969-71 he was a Fulbright Fellow and a Kent Fellow at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, and in 1970 a Rockefeller Fellow at Hamburg University, Germany. Upon receiving his PhD from Union, he decided to study analytic philosophy and went to Oxford University from which he earned his D. Phil in 1977. He also lectured at Oxford. In 1977 he became a Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of Notre Dame. After this he taught at the University of Texas (Dallas), and became a Professor at the University of Mississippi, where he was Chair of the Philosophy Department. He was also a visiting Scholar at Brigham Young University, University of California, Berkeley and New York University among others. He recently retired as Professor of Philosophy, Emeritus from the United States Military Academy at West Point, where he was a Professor for nine years. In 2004-5 he was a Visiting Fellow at Clare Hall, Cambridge University, UK, where he became a Life-Fellow. He has read papers at 60 universities in the USA, Europe and Asia.
June 27, 2016 | Unregistered Commenteranonymous
Walter Sinnott-Armstrong Is also worth looking into....

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (born 1955) is an American philosopher. He specializes in ethics, epistemology, and more recently in neuroethics, the philosophy of law, and the philosophy of cognitive science. He is the Chauncey Stillman Professor of Practical Ethics in the Department of Philosophy and the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University.[1] He earned his Ph.D. from Yale University under the supervision of Robert Fogelin and Ruth Barcan Marcus, and taught for many years at Dartmouth College, before moving to Duke.[2]

His Moral Skepticisms (2006) defends the view that we do not have fully adequate responses to the moral skeptic. It also defends a coherentist moral epistemology, which he has defended for decades. His Morality Without God? (2009) endorses the moral philosophy of his former colleague Bernard Gert as an alternative to religious views of morality.[citation needed]

In 1999, he debated William Lane Craig in a debate titled "God? A Debate Between A Christian and An Atheist".[3]

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong argues that God is not only not essential to morality, but moral behaviour should be independent of religion. A separate entity one could say. He strongly disagrees with several core ideas: that atheists are immoral people; that any society will become like lord of the flies if it becomes too secular; that without morality being laid out in front of us, like a commandment, we have no reason to be moral; that absolute moral standards require the existence of a God, he sees that people themselves are inherently good and not bad; and that without religion, we simply couldn't know what is bad and what is good.
June 27, 2016 | Unregistered Commenteranonymous
Wo! What a amazing thoughts bro.... Keep it up ... See yaa soon
"That's right and this is why ... I think this is what I would say to Sam Harris if he were here, because I think that a lot of his motivation is that he wants to be able to sort of find that common ground. That he wants to be able to disagree with someone who is in favor
of something terrible like female genital mutilation. By saying not only, "That's horrible," but by saying, "You're making a mistake. You are not maximizing the flourishing of conscious creatures," or something like that. I don't know about that. I mean, they might not be making a mistake by their own lights, but I think that their own lights include a highly dubious ontology. I think that ontology matters when you are constructing your moral principles ..."

I've not yet read The Big Picture but, from what Carroll said in this episode, I don't see the way in which he disagrees with Harris on this point. I think Harris would evaluate that terrible something like female genital mutilation as a mistake precisely on the grounds that the moral system which gave rise to it is founded on a highly dubious ontology. It seems to me also, that Harris would agree that an honest investigation of what matters to people would result in a convergence of morals. But, I don't think he believes there exists one true moral system - I like his 'many peaks on the moral landscape' metaphor; there may be many equivalent systems which equally promote human flourishing.

So to me, Carroll saying he does not believe there are objectively true morals, and bringing up Harris' presumed view on finding common ground for comparison, seems like a distinction without difference. What am I missing?
June 29, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterClint
I forgot to mention that one of your former guests, Dan Fincke (RS 152 - Dan Fincke on “The pros and cons of civil disagreement”) also argues in defense of objective morality.
June 29, 2016 | Unregistered Commenteranonymous
It sounds to me like both Sean and Julia are groping around for what Ronald Dworkin articulated so well in his last two books, Justice for Hedghogs and Religion Without God—what he called "ungrounded value realism."
July 2, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterPeter
This discussion made me think of John Searle's "Seeing Things As They Are", though in the moral vs. the phenomenal domain. Now I simply _must_ read Mr. Carroll's book, to see if the analogies I perceive are in some sense real, vs. just an expression of my moral preferences at this moment ;-)
July 3, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Michael Zorko
Great interview. Sean continues to be one of my absolute favorites. Well done.
July 4, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterTom Brown
I forgot to mention that one of your former guests, Dan Fincke (RS 152 - Dan Fincke on “The pros and cons of civil disagreement”) also argues in defense of objective morality.
July 5, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterYahoo Tech Support
In Sam Harris' Moral Landscape, I don't think he ever used the word "utilitarianism". Here, I don't think the phrase “moral relativism" was ever used. Sometimes it helps to call a spade a spade. If that phrase has some unwelcome baggage, reclaim it and defend it, rather than shy away from it, take it back and own it. Something like, “my name is Sean Carroll and I'm a moral relativist".
July 29, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterA spade is a spade
Loved the episode. I thought the idea of poetic naturalism was important enough to warrant an entry in Wikipedia, so I wrote it:

If anyone else who is smarter or a better writer than me (I set a low bar there) would like to help edit the article to add more external references, or improve my synthesis, then that would be greatly appreciated!
August 23, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterRob Grafrath
The UNBELIEVABLE similarities between Sean Carroll’s idea (2016) (California Institute of Technology, USA) (within the wrong framework, the “universe”) and Gabriel Vacariu’s ideas (2002-2010) (within the EDWs framework) on quantum mechanics, the relationship between Einstein relativity and quantum mechanics, life, the mind-brain problem, etc. at
November 6, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterGabriel Vacariu
The UNBELIEVABLE similarities between Sean Carroll’s idea (2016) (California Institute of Technology, USA) or Frank Wilczek’s ideas (2016) (Nobel Prize on Physics) and my ideas (2002-2010) at
January 9, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterGabriel Vacariu
Hurts to hear that your quite confident belief (as far as I understand the description of it) is "obviously false". And I couldn't understand why, or cannot find the sense that there cannot be optimal code(s) of behaviour and policy.
January 18, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterET
I have been looking for this article for a very long time finally, I got it. This is one of the best articles I have ever read about creating a blog perfectly. ??
Brother thanks for sharing with us.
Keep up the good work.
November 30, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterjazz
Can't I believe in the possibility of the supernatural and yet at the same time remain skeptical?

If we reduce our understanding of love to a neurological phenomenon, won't we still want love?

Doesn't nature itself suggest a simple set of moral principles? For instance, doesn't natural evolution suggest a set of moral principles that favor the survival of our species?
December 11, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJameson
Great interview. Sean continues to be one of my absolute favorites. Well done
February 15, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterjohn

"Doesn't nature itself suggest a simple set of moral principles?"

I believe this is called Natural Law. A set of rules that govern the Universe and all of Life that work to bring about a state of symbiotic conditions. So basically what everything becomes are just a set of objective, common sensical Moral principles that apply to everyone on the Planet no matter what their values, Culture etc. are. And yes these Natural Law principles are how we conform to the right actions for our Sustainability and Survival on this Planet.
June 19, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterErnesto
@Ernesto How very rational of you. I agree with you that Natural Law does indeed exist.
June 20, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJameson

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
All HTML will be escaped. Hyperlinks will be created for URLs automatically.