Big Picture Part Six: Caring

One of a series of quick posts on the six sections of my book The Big PictureCosmos, Understanding, Essence, Complexity, Thinking, Caring.

Chapters in Part Six, Caring:

  • 45. Three Billion Heartbeats
  • 46. What Is and What Ought to Be
  • 47. Rules and Consequences
  • 48. Constructing Goodness
  • 49. Listening to the World
  • 50. Existential Therapy

In this final section of the book, we take a step back to look at the journey we’ve taken, and ask what it implies for how we should think about our lives. I intentionally kept it short, because I don’t think poetic naturalism has many prescriptive advice to give along these lines. Resisting the temptation to give out a list of “Ten Naturalist Commandments,” I instead offer a list of “Ten Considerations,” things we can keep in mind while we decide for ourselves how we want to live.

A good poetic naturalist should resist the temptation to hand out commandments. “Give someone a fish,” the saying goes, “and you feed them for a day. Teach them to fish, and you feed them for a lifetime.” When it comes to how to lead our lives, poetic naturalism has no fish to give us. It doesn’t even really teach us how to fish. It’s more like poetic naturalism helps us figure out that there are things called “fish,” and perhaps investigate the various possible ways to go about catching them, if that were something we were inclined to do. It’s up to us what strategy we want to take, and what to do with our fish once we’ve caught them.

There are nevertheless some things worth saying, because there are a lot of untrue beliefs to which we all tend to cling from time to time. Many (most?) naturalists have trouble letting go of the existence of objective moral truths, even if they claim to accept the idea that the natural world is all that exists. But you can’t derive ought from is, so an honest naturalist will admit that our ethical principles are constructed rather than derived from nature. (In particular, I borrow the idea of “Humean constructivism” from philosopher Sharon Street.) Fortunately, we’re not blank slates, or computers happily idling away; we have aspirations, desires, preferences, and cares. More than enough raw material to construct workable notions of right and wrong, no less valuable for being ultimately subjective.

Of course there are also incorrect beliefs on the religious or non-naturalist side of the ledger, from the existence of divinely-approved ways of being to the promise of judgment and eternal reward for good behavior. Naturalists accept that life is going to come to an end — this life is not a dress rehearsal for something greater, it’s the only performance we get to give. The average person can expect a lifespan of about three billion heartbeats. That’s a goodly number, but far from limitless. We should make the most of each of our heartbeats.


The finitude of life doesn’t imply that it’s meaningless, any more than obeying the laws of physics implies that we can’t find purpose and joy within the natural world. The absence of a God to tell us why we’re here and hand down rules about what is and is not okay doesn’t leave us adrift — it puts the responsibility for constructing meaningful lives back where it always was, in our own hands.

Here’s a story one could imagine telling about the nature of the world. The universe is a miracle. It was created by God as a unique act of love. The splendor of the cosmos, spanning billions of years and countless stars, culminated in the appearance of human beings here on Earth — conscious, aware creatures, unions of soul and body, capable of appreciating and returning God’s love. Our mortal lives are part of a larger span of existence, in which we will continue to participate after our deaths.

It’s an attractive story. You can see why someone would believe it, and work to reconcile it with what science has taught us about the nature of reality. But the evidence points elsewhere.

Here’s a different story. The universe is not a miracle. It simply is, unguided and unsustained, manifesting the patterns of nature with scrupulous regularity. Over billions of years it has evolved naturally, from a state of low entropy toward increasing complexity, and it will eventually wind down to a featureless equilibrium condition. We are the miracle, we human beings. Not a break-the-laws-of-physics kind of miracle; a miracle in that it is wondrous and amazing how such complex, aware, creative, caring creatures could have arisen in perfect accordance with those laws. Our lives are finite, unpredictable, and immeasurably precious. Our emergence has brought meaning and mattering into the world.

That’s a pretty darn good story, too. Demanding in its own way, it may not give us everything we want, but it fits comfortably with everything science has taught us about nature. It bequeaths to us the responsibility and opportunity to make life into what we would have it be.

I do hope people enjoy the book. As I said earlier, I don’t presume to be offering many final answers here. I do think that the basic precepts of naturalism provide a framework for thinking about the world that, given our current state of knowledge, is overwhelmingly likely to be true. But the hard work of understanding the details of how that world works, and how we should shape our lives within it, is something we humans as a species have really only just begun to tackle in a serious way. May our journey of discovery be enlivened by frequent surprises!

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34 Responses to Big Picture Part Six: Caring

  1. Ray Stockton says:

    Let me first apologize for misunderstanding your rebuttal to my remarks. Clearly my lack of knowledge in philosophy went without being said. I read a bit of Kant’s concern for what Hume was lacking. I am forced to agree that I do lack logic in its purest sense. As for you feeling inadequate in any way about your use of English, you far beyond me for English is all that I have. To be able to communicate such complex abstract information in a second language is worthy of great respect.

    How then to proceed with a worthy discussion…? It is true, I have drawn on my own observations and taken for granted the patterns in nature revealed by the purest language that is mathematics. Yet again as I examine my own hypotheses applying to particle physics, in particular quantum entanglement, without the mathematics being complete, I am conceptually interpreting an incomplete set of data based on untrustworthy observations. It is like watching the actions of a mob and asserting that I know the mind precisely of any one individual in that mob. No matter how pure an intentionally good my ideas are, you have put my ego in check. For the sake of the future, I hope it is not checkmate for my thoughts. I guess dropping out of high school and missing out on calculus and other classes has once again come around to point out my own foolishness. I still cling to my hypotheses for now and eagerly await the conclusions of the mathematics and will accept my definite defeat when it comes, but you have inspired and issued a great challenge to me and my perception of reality. I will most certainly look for the 2 books you suggested. Thank you my friend for your patience with my lofty opinions. I’m sure I will continue to make bold assertions, but I will have the tempering knowledge that without an absolute connection between observations and reproducible proof, my sense of certainty is indeed merely an illusion. Hmmm… may we all tread more carefully toward the unknown future.

  2. javier rodriguez de rivera says:

    I wish I had the opportunity of sharing a drink. with you, to enjoy more this dialog, so if you come to Spain let me know. It ‘s a long time since last time I visited USA which I like for so many things.
    In my view the main point is to have thoughts , after we all need to study and get information to get a more deep knowledge about what we are trying to know and understand. But more you study more you realize you know nothing, and I say that at 74….but it is great, that keeps alive the interest in the world we are, admiration of universe and love for life , no need of God but need for trascendence but not for eternity.
    Warm regards.

  3. Ray Stockton says:

    I’m sure you and I will comment on future blog posts, but if you would like to talk about ideas beyond this blog site my email address is I am 46. It has been an enlightening pleasure.

  4. Paul Snyder says:

    I am a theist, yet I fully realize that Sean may be right and that there may not be a life after death. I do not agree that the possibility of life after death has been statistically falsified, indeed objective arguments against the universe being randomly created remain compelling to me. Either there is a non-physical life after death or there is not, logically there is no way to be certain until we experience physical death.
    One thing that bothers me is that humanists, from Nietzsche to Camus to Sean, claim to find meaning in naturalism. If there are only atoms and the void, then when the atoms comprising a sentient being disburse, the honest naturalist is compelled to say that the human being does not exist. This does not deny that the statement the “being exists” was once true, it only says that the statement the “being exists” is currently false. So after physical death, for whom can it be said life has meaning? Perhaps it can be said life has meaning for those who are alive, but life can have no meaning for those who have died and no longer exist. Because they are human, humanists / naturalists reject the idea that the past, present, and future of a human being, being consumed by the void, are annihilated by physical death. If there is no life after physical death it seems likely that there can be no meaning for a being who does not exist, and that each of us are awaiting our turn to not exist.
    It seems that anyone who seeks to construct existential physical meaning on a naturalist framework is the one creating a myth. Most do so by viewing humankind, nature, the universe, etc., as anthropomorphic entities that somehow experience meaning. It is far easier for me to accept the possibility, no matter how remote it may seem, that a non-physical world exists beyond human perception, than it is to accept that the natural world supports meaning apart from living sentient beings. Collectively humankind, the environment, future generations, etc., are the inanimate idols of naturalist scientists.

    If the naturalist would say that the probable, not certain, consequence of naturalism is that life has no meaning, then I would accept that as being intellectually honest. I should note that if the void actually does consume a human being’s past, present, and future, there is absolutely nothing to fear, no reason for any angst whatsoever (and counterintuitively no possible rationale for suicide, nor any for hedonistic choices). Fully understanding the void is perhaps impossible for human beings, however until someone has a basic concept of what it means to say there is no life after physical death, they cannot make an informed choice between faith in the existence of God and belief that there is no life after death. Indeed, if there is nothing after physical death and therefore no meaning in a transient life, the only rational choice while we are alive is to have faith in the possibility of the existence of God and hope for a meaningful non-physical life after physical death.

  5. josef johann says:

    I have to say I’m quite disappointed with the overconfident claims that one cannot derive an ought from an is. It’s a popular claim, but it stands at odds with a perfectly mainstream school of moral philosophy, namely ethical naturalism, and respected names like Pat Churchland, Richard Boyd, and Owen Flanagan, to name a few, have spent a fair amount of effort arguing it to be unfounded. Plus there’s Richard Joyce who, while not a naturalist, dismisses is/ought as a dogma.

    I shouldn’t have to name drop, but it’s the unfortunate state of the modern conversation on moral thought that people wrongly think is/ought was a view advocated by Hume (it wasn’t; it was Neo-Humean interpretations of Hume), and believing it’s some sort of ethics 101 truism, when it’s nothing of the sort.

  6. javier rodriguez de rivera says:

    Surely there are streams in philosophy in favour and against ethical naturalism.
    But let make a difference between the “is-ought” problem , and ethical naturalism, the first was well denounced by Hume in his “A treatise of Human nature” book III part I section I, analyzing its logic incoherence. Later in XX century Moore in his Naturalistic Fallacy brought to actuallity the incoherence pointed by Hume in his position against ethical naturalism.
    From a modern logic methodology the jump from “is” to” ought to” is against logic rules.
    The discussions about ethical naturalism is another matter.

  7. Daniel Parsignault says:

    “Give someone a fish,” the saying goes, “and you feed them for a day. Teach someone how to fish and he will sit in a boat drinking beer all day.”

  8. Jon Underwood says:

    Hi Mark Sloan,
    The ‘ cooperation is fundamental’ piece has run a few years now – it was very popular in Evolutionary Psychology 2 or 3 years ago – and may still be now. I think people found the notional envisioning of cooperation as a force of nature, somehow complimented Epigenetics.
    It’s a nice simple sounding idea, cooperation, but in fact it’s complicated, and that makes calling it fundamental problematic. Another barrier is just that for any reasonably robust definition of cooperation, it seems to be a derivative of Natural Selection.
    Not reasons to abandon your vision. You should keep on going if you believe in it. I don’t disbelieve…I think your idea is plausible. But those were my top two points worth to mention

  9. Dr. Carroll I have written a critique of your book on the (if you will) theological side. It is to be found here:

    I also wrote a review of your book (gave it 4 stars) on Amazon over here:

    The review is much shorter than the critique, but it hints at the latter’s content. Although I disagree with you (I am a theologian) I hope I have represented you, stated your arguments, fairly.