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Shaun Carroll, The Big Picture and Fiona Ellis, God, Value and Nature [Double Review]

My last review was of a book which I had bought for myself, and wanted to tell ESSSAT colleagues about. Here I follow the same pattern, except that this review is not of one book but two. They have in common that I’ve heard both the authors lecture more than once, on each occasion with lucidity and charm; and that each author is concerned to present a modified form of naturalism, less abrasive than crude, scientistic naturalism such as that purveyed by the New Atheists. Sean Carroll calls his variant ‘poetic naturalism’, Fiona Ellis’s term is ‘expansive naturalism’.

Apart from these similarities, however, the books are very different. Carroll, highly-regarded Cal Tech physicist whose popular expositions of modern physics (this one included) have won several prizes, covers an immense canvas with flair and ease. Ellis, who has just taken up a chair in philosophy at the University of Roehampton (on account of the forthcoming closure of her previous institution, Heythrop College, University of London) argues meticulously within a focused academic field, interacting courteously with a select group of philosophical and theological near-contemporaries.


The backbone of Carroll’s world-picture is the ‘Core Theory’, linking the standard model of particle physics with general relativity. He is totally sure that Core Theory is correct: “Even after another hundred or thousand years of scientific progress, we will still believe in the Core Theory, with its fields and their interactions. Hopefully by then we’ll be in possession of an even deeper level of understanding, but the Core Theory will never go away” (p. 194). I wonder! This fixation apart, Carroll displays a wonderful range of scientific knowledge – from the origins of life to neuroscience – and tempers it all with commendable perspectives from pertinent philosophy, both traditional and contemporary. The essence of his poetic naturalism is that, while everything could, in principle, be explained in terms of Core Theory, only a very restricted number of events are usefully so described. “There is one way of talking about the universe that describes it as elementary particles or quantum states, in which Laplace holds sway and what happens next depends only on the state of the system right now. There is also another way of talking about it, where we zoom out a bit and introduce categories like ‘people’ and ‘choices’. Unlike our best theories of planets or pendulums, our best theories of human behaviour are not deterministic” (36-7). Excellent!

Of the topics listed in his title, it is the origin of life which Carroll treats most explicitly, and he does so in mainstream, 21st C terms. Hardly any serious thinker now feels it necessary to have recourse to viral particles brought to earth by meteorites, or any other such buck-passing non-answers. Everyone is sure that life is a product of terrestrial biochemistry – albeit operating in some very strange environment, such as a hydrothermal vent in a deep ocean rock-cleft (263). This is not a field in which Carroll has himself researched, but he gives a highly competent and wide-ranging account of current thinking, spiced by some provocative aphorisms. My favourite among these is Albert Szent-Györgyi’s “Life is nothing but an electron looking for a place to rest”.

Another vexed topic is, of course, consciousness. Carroll is no more a neuroscientist than a biochemist, so again he is concerned with other people’s work not his own, and with principles rather than details. His key principle is that consciousness is a product of the behaviour of interacting neurons. No energies, no forces, no agencies are involved which do not figure in the equations of Core Theory. Many of us, thinking in these terms, would speak of ‘emergence’; Carroll, fearing the clandestine introduction of those hidden forces, is reluctant to accept that this helps.

For essentially the same reasons, Carroll is an atheist. He looks back fondly on boyhood churchgoing, and is tolerant of those who are still so inclined, but no longer holds their view himself. However his arguments in

favour of the atheistic stance are disappointingly lightweight – the sort of thinking one expects to share in an opening conversation with a 10-yr old. I shall pick out the two he most emphasizes. First is that the great religions proclaim different key doctrines (147). What an indication this is, of Carroll’s cast of mind! Evidently, for him there would need to be a single set of teachings (a Core Dogma?) whatever the circumstances, the place, the culture, the point in history. Clearly he is looking for a science – or a technology? – not a religion: his naturalism may be poetic, but it is unable to encompass an anthology! He is superficial also in his discussion of evil. “Imagine a world that was free of random suffering. Imagine a world that was perfectly just, in which the relative state of happiness of each person was precisely proportional to their virtue. …. [D]iligent seekers of the true ontology would rightly take those aspects of reality as evidence for God’s existence” (147). Define ‘just’, define ‘virtue’? To me, Carroll’s approach here is trite. Suffering and evil cause anguish, and should be considered in anguish not with pat superficiality. Is life for an eminent academic in California too easy to draw forth such sensibility?

In that last paragraph I dwelt on two of Carroll’s chief weaknesses, but overall I want to emphasize his very many strengths. Among the greatest is the clarity with which he answers most of his own questions – clarity, that is, when it is not achieved (as it was in those last two example) by jejune oversimplification. We have already seen that he is perfectly clear in principle on the origin of life. He is also, to his own satisfaction at least, on that of consciousness. “Many experts on consciousness think of these … issues, in the words of Peter Hankins, as ‘the Easy Problem (which is hard), and the Hard Problem (which is impossible).’ But some think the Hard Problem …. Really isn’t a problem at all – just a matter of conceptual confusion” (350). Well, I’m afraid I do think it’s hard – indeed, probably impossible. So, while respecting Carroll’s clarity, I disagree with his view.

As to the origin of the Universe itself, Carroll correctly points out that “the Big Bang doesn’t actually mark the beginning of our universe, it marks the end of our theoretical understanding” (51). More fundamentally, however, the concept of cause, of ‘the reason why’, does not exist in the Core Theory. So the Universe “just is”. Perhaps, therefore, he could be accused in this instance of ducking his own question rather than answering it. Yet when your essential position is that most everyday thinking is confused, that is a fair line to adopt.

Furthermore, it is to Carroll’s great credit that he devotes his last fifty or sixty pages to a topic not indicated in his title – morality. Quite unlike the superficial treatment of religion, his broadly humanist treatment of morality is sensitive, thorough, and based on impressively wide reading. It is not surprising that the tensions between consequentialist and deontological ethics are explored, particularly in relation to the widely-cited problem of the out-of-control railway trolley and the decision which way to shift the points. Yet Abraham’s dilemma, when told by God to sacrifice Isaac, is sympathetically acknowledged also. It is acknowledged not only at face value, but in terms of Kierkegaard’s critique of what he considered Kant’s over-simple assessment. We learn that Kant, himself taking issue with Luther, considered that Abraham should have realized that a command to sacrifice Isaac could not have come from God; Kierkegaard, in Fear and Trembling, told four variant versions of the story, each bringing to the fore a different aspect of its moral complexity. I wonder how many Sunday sermonizers are aware of this fertile source of material? I certainly wasn’t. Nor, impressed though I already was by Sean Carroll’s range of humane scholarship, would I have expected to learn of it from this at-his-best remarkable physicist.


Fiona Ellis starts where Shaun Carroll ends – with ethics. She is at least as aware as Carroll of the range of possible questions, but she is not prepared to exclude God from her answers. Her position acknowledges “that we are natural beings in a natural world, and gives expression to the demand that we avoid metaphysical flights of fancy and ensure that our claims remain empirically grounded.” But she insists that “these undoubted virtues have been appropriated and monopolized by the scientific naturalist, and this has led to the unsupported and disastrous conclusion that science provides the only means of satisfying the relevant constraints.” The expansive naturalist is equally concerned to avoid “anything and everything supernatural”, but refuses to accept that this avoidance implies that “we have sold ourselves and the world short, for ‘nature’ is not limited to whatever is the object of scientific enquiry” (p. 2).

Other philosophers, notably the ethicists David Wiggins (Oxford) and John McDowell (Pittsburgh), from each of whom Ellis draws extensively, wear the label ‘expansive naturalists’ without her theistic leanings. McDowell, in particular, sees values as having comparable validity to scientific concepts. The “evaluatively enchanted nature” so conceived “has no room for the gods of pre-scientific superstition”, but does not “rule out the idea of a divinely enchanted nature, provided we take care to distinguish God from the gods” (5). At this stage in her thought Ellis sometimes describes her position as ‘theistic’, rather than ‘expansive’ naturalism, and I suspect that the reason why she doesn’t do this throughout is that she hopes to win established expansive naturalists over to the recognition that their position, without of course requiring theism, nonetheless opens the door to it.

The names of Wiggins and McDowell will recur, but meantime I suspect that many scientists will feel, as I did on first reading, that the way to keep naturalism entirely scientific and yet include values in the world-view is to recognize that social and psychological studies are part of the overall spectrum of science. Such a view is principally represented in this book (chapter 2) by the writing of Peter Railton (Ann Arbor), who is cited particularly in dialogue with Akeel Bilgrami (Columbia). The challenge is that a scientific account is so easily presented in terms that are “clinical, neutral and reductive” (43). Yet there is, in the experience of value, a motivational, a normative element – and this element is essential to the very concept of value generally and of moral value in particular (27). Railton therefore sees the task at hand as being to provide “a plausible synthesis of the empirical and the normative” (31). As a secular naturalist Railton is at one with the scientist in insisting that morality cannot be founded on a claim that in some sense, the universe cares what we do. “Morality … is ideology which has faced the facts, and it is made abundantly clear that these are not to be found by turning our gaze heavenwards” (36-7). On the contrary, “moral values or imperatives … need be grounded in nothing more transcendental than facts about man and his environment, facts about what sorts of things matter to us, and how the ways we live affect these things” (36).

Inherent in this attempt is the issue “whether, and in what sense, values are objective. Railton … seeks to defend such a conception … by viewing them in scientific terms. McDowell holds that it is the imposition of such terms that generates the difficulty … because an exclusively scientific conception of objectivity fails to accommodate those properties in the world an understanding of which requires ‘essential reference to their effects on sentient beings’, and evaluative properties fall into this category” (52). He and Wiggins then exploit an analogy with colour. Thus Wiggins: “There resides in the combined objectivity and anthropocentricity of colour a striking example to illuminate .. the externality that human beings attribute to the properties by whose ascription they evaluate things, people and actions.” (53) And Bilgrami, delightfully: “Value is more like ‘red’ than ‘square’.” (54). So, in Ellis’s own words, “evaluative properties are not conceivable independently of our sentient responses to them” (55), and this is the respect in which the scientific naturalist’s over-objective approach is all too likely to miss its mark.

One of the important points recognized in further discussion is that our sense of value can be developed, or even imparted ab initio, by education or habituation. That this is not the case with colour is one of the obvious respects in which colour-sense is only an analogy to our sense of moral or other value, not a model of it.

The fourth of Fiona Ellis’s eight chapters is entitled Enchanted Nature. Following our extensive sampling of Wiggins and McDowell, we know that this “is not a matter of enchanting the world with the magical interventions of [primitive] gods, for these interventions are called into question by science. Rather, it is a matter of allowing that there are things in the world – values – which are compatible with the findings of science, and which are irreducible to the things it can explain” (80). Then comes the interesting point that those primitive gods were at least potential candidates for scientific investigation, but God, seen in terms of a sound epistemology, is not (86). Here Ellis is beginning to reveal the influence of two new sources, the mid-20th C Anglican theologians who both concluded their careers in Cambridge, John Robinson and Eric Mascall. Both resist the Deistic concept of “a remote and glacial deity”, and Mascall counters this by emphasizing “the concrete existential activity uniting” God and man. He continues: “Sometimes we are told that God is das ganz Anderes, the ‘wholly other’, and both these assertions are true. They neglect, however, the basic fact in which the mutual otherness of God and man consists, namely that man is totally dependent for his existence on the incessant creative activity of the self-existent God. And the importance of this … is that, while it involves the greatest conceivable contrast between God and man, it  simultaneously places them in the most intimate connection” (89).

Has Ellis been injudiciously rash in quoting this overt and high-level theology less than halfway through her book? Probably not, because Mascall is talking metaphysics, not physics. Nothing in his passage could be scientifically refuted. The relation he describes, of man to God, has much in common with that of the physical world to value. The book’s case is developing, but it is not complete. Among those with whom Ellis takes her thought forward  is the admirable Karl Rahner, whose position “occupies the conceptual space between dualism and pantheism” (100). This God “is the ontological source of the world rather than something within or beyond it.” Next to be cited is Emmanuel Levinas, for whom the God who makes the world nice for small children is anathema: “the adult’s God is revealed precisely through the void of the child’s heaven” (121). Sean Carroll take note!

God, then, is not a consoling father figure, indulgent to our wishes. “We fail to relate to God when we treat Him as the supreme satisfier” (134). The contrary, He is the consummation of the moral challenges we encounter in our dealings with other human beings. It is our responsibility to the “other” – the other person – which shapes all that we are and do. So “the dimension of the divine opens forth from the human face.”

How should the expansive naturalist relate to this? For him, as for Levinas, “values as requirements have an external source … in the world – the value-involving world to which we respond in a moral context (139).” So the naturalist could concede to Levinas, but would demand to be persuaded that the latter’s position makes for a more satisfactory conception of value and our relation to it.

As it is with value, so it is with God, though for a more radical reason. “The idea that God is in principle unaccountable by science is precisely what is to be expected, given that He is not a part of the world, and to reject Him on this ground would be to commit to scientism. So He is irreducible to the natural causes within the world to which we rightly appeal at the level of scientific explanation. Nor, however, does he lie beyond the world, as an agent or force behind the scenes. … Rather, he is [the world’s] ontological source … both radically distinct from the world whilst also being intimately connected to it” (148-9).

Whether we are considering the minimally theological stance of Levinas, or the more full-blooded one of the last paragraph (associated earlier with such names as Mascall and Rahner), philosophy can only assure us of the legitimacy of the position, not prove its validity. But that each position can legitimately be reached, from a starting point in naturalism, is a startling claim enough.


It will be evident that the two books under review could hardly be more different in style, approach and even, to a large extent, in subject matter, though both are concerned to humanize the stark extremes of scientistic naturalism. Within this aim, there are two topics which they both tackle: the believability of God, and the objectivity of morality. On God, Sean Carroll is not in the same league as Fiona Ellis. If he ever picks up her book, and reads her sections on God, I like to think that he would be man enough to hang his head in shame at the inadequacy of his own treatment. However, on morality, and the objectivity of values, I believe they could have a serious conversation.

Neil Spurway
University of Glasgow

Reprinted from ESSSAT News and Reviews, n. 27:3 (September 2017), pp. 29-35.