Sean Carroll, Joe Rogan, and a Volleyball Called “Wilson.”

By Braxton Hunter

|

April 27, 2020

Whether one embraces Christian theism or not, it should be somewhat uncontroversial that a Christian worldview supplies satisfying answers to humanity’s deepest questions and longings. Is man determined by external forces, or may he chart his own path? Should he be held responsible, and to what extent? Does the complexity of nature hint at design, or is it the result of mindless naturalism? Is there a point to all of this? What happens when we die? A relevant worldview will have answers to these questions, which allows for a worldview analysis and comparison. Naturalism is not without answers, and one of the world’s leading physicists, Sean Carroll, is on an atheist PR mission to market those answers in a more attractive manner. Can he do it? Let’s find out.

In October of 2012, Carroll took part in a workshop among atheist popularizers which included Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins, Terrence Deacon, Simon DeDeo, Daniel Dennett, Owen Flangan, Rebecca Goldstein, Janna Levin, David Poeppel, Massimo Pigliucci, Nicholas Pritzker, Alex Rosenberg, Don Ross, and Steven Weinberg. It was something like a materialist upper-room, triclinium table, and all. During his introduction, Carroll said,

There’s some feeling among many people that explaining why naturalism is right, and how science leads us to that, pulls the rug out from underneath you in terms of why we are here, what is the purpose and meaning of life, and so forth. And all we have to offer them in return is a hard-concrete floor. And I don’t think that’s true. I think we can do better, but so I’m very, very interested in sort of taking those positive next steps and explaining to people what it is like to live in a world governed by naturalism . . .[1]

In other words, Carroll is in search of a means by which to cast naturalism in a light that is acceptable in the absence of religion. He recognizes the void left by the death of God, and urges his compatriots to help him fill it. So far so good.

As an aside, one of my favorite films is Castaway, starring Tom Hanks. The concept of a man stuck on a desert Island for a number of years offers an opportunity for a great thought experiment. When the meaning, value, companionship, and love that accompanies human interaction is removed, what will man do to improvise a replacement? Hanks’ character creates a “person” by painting a face on a Wilson volleyball using his own blood. “Wilson” becomes one of the most important roles in the movie. But . . . Wilson is a story-telling device. He has no intrinsic value (or very little), free will, or moral responsibility. He is powerful because he serves as an icon for real personhood. Yet, the humanity that he images for the viewer does have value, free will, and moral responsibility. For the film, “Wilson” only works in so far as he represents something greater, and when the castaway makes it home, he does not surround himself with painted volleyballs. He craves human love and human companionship. Sean Carroll is seeking to create a “Wilson.” Sadly, his “Wilson” is a cheap imitation of the objective, transcendent, and ultimate. Worse, on Carroll’s naturalism, this “Wilson” points toward nothing more.

FREE WILL

On naturalism, free will is an illusion, and this has led to no small division among naturalist philosophers, and scientists as to how to speak about the subject. Should they bite the bullet, grit their teeth, and use the language of determinism, come what may, or should they use the language of freedom regardless of the cold concrete reality of determinism? A 2013 survey of 3,000+ mostly atheist (72.8%) “professors, graduate students, and independent thinkers,” sheds light on the disagreement. Aside from the 13.7% who affirmed libertarian freedom (the view that nothing external to the agent determines his or her actions), 59.1% affirmed what is known as compatibilism.[2] Compatibilism is the position that despite the fact of determinism, since the agent is “free” in the sense that the agent may do whatever the agent wants, it is meaningful to speak of the agent using the language of freedom. The determinism holds because the agent cannot want whatever the agent wants, and the agent’s actions flow from those wants. To be clear, this is still to affirm determinism. Factors external to the agent determine the agent’s actions. Sean Carroll affirms compatibilism. Why?

During one of his appearances on the Joe Rogan Experience,[3] Carroll explained,

“If I talk about myself as a large collection of atoms and particles obeying the laws of physics then clearly there’s no free will . . . But guess what? That’s not a fruitful way to go through your life in terms of talking about human beings.”

Linguistic pragmatism aside, Carroll admits that despite his commitment to determinism, the only fruitful way to go through life is to speak as though human beings are free. Now we have a “face” for naturalism’s “Wilson.”           

MORAL RESPONSIBILITY

What about moral responsibility? Our physicist moves on to tell Rogan,

. . . if you think that a person makes choices then you can assign responsibility to them for making the choices they made That’s what we do in the world. If someone chooses to rob a bank, we choose to put them in jail. Someone could come along and say, “Well, they’re just a bunch of atoms obeying the laws of physics. How can you blame them?” Right? That would be dopey. That doesn’t make any sense.

Now, Carroll does continue the discussion and ultimately admits that this issue of praise and blame presents new problems, and he admits he doesn’t have ultimate solutions to them. Yet, for the moment he seems to face the reality of what his worldview entails, and suggests, “That would be dopey,” and “that doesn’t make any sense.” In other words, though his position dissolves moral responsibility, he needs to keep the concept.     

DESIGN

Later, Rogan presses the issue of design, and Carroll admits, “I mean that’s just an obvious idea.” And moments later says, “Like, if something exists it must have been designed. There must be a purpose. Things work in a certain way cuz someone made them that way. And we don’t see that person hanging around, so it must be, you know, up there in the sky or something.” Indeed! In fact, a better representation of Romans 1:20 would be hard to imagine. Paul says,

 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.”

I know, I know. Sean Carroll would likely argue that common sense can lead one astray. As part of his response to fine-tuning arguments, he says, “The multiverse is a perfectly viable naturalistic explanation.”[4] Yet, when you have to invoke an entire multiverse as part of your attempt to escape the likelihood of design, the phrase “clearly seen” begins to sound like a, dare-I-say, literally infinite understatement. It seems “obvious,” Carroll says. Does it Sean? You’re darn right it does.

MEANING

Rogan later wants to know about meaning. After all, that was the chief vacuum Carroll told the folks in the upper-room he wanted to fill.  Twice Rogan asks the question, and twice Carroll waxes eloquent about our ability to chase our own goals and aspirations in an attempt to make the world a “better” place. There is nothing “external,” Carroll says, but he doesn’t think there needs to be. Understandably, and in what must surely be an unintentionally revealing way, a crest-fallen-looking Rogan asks, “Hmm . . . And . . . do you get down sometimes? Do you ever, do you, do you get like these periods of like, you’re like, what is the purpose of all this?” It certainly seems that after hearing Carroll make his best case for meaning on naturalism, he still detected what Carroll articulated as, “a hard-concrete floor.”

Sean Carroll’s stated purpose was to offer something “better” than that hard-concrete floor. Still, in conversation with Rogan we learn that in order to do it he has to rely on a great deal of inconsistency. People aren’t free, but we’re going to pretend that they are. Moral responsibility seems to evaporate, but that’s “dopey.” In fact, at times the inconsistency swings in the other direction. It seems “obvious” that the universe exhibits design, but the naturalism won’t allow for that. As for meaning, there’s nothing “external,” but we can create our own meaning. We can make it up for ourselves.

Sean Carroll has created a “Wilson” for naturalism. Unfortunately, without an ultimate referent it’s hard to get too bummed out when “Wilson” is consumed by the sea. All of humanity will one day face the same pointless fate. It too will be consumed, and no one will remember. Without God, it’s just a volleyball floating in the ocean.[5]


Bibliography

Bourget, David & Chalmers David J. “What Do Philosophers Believe?”. Philpapers.org, https://philpapers.org/archive/BOUWDP (accessed January 21, 2020).

Carroll, Sean. “Introductions: Sean Carroll”. Filmed October 2012. YouTube video, 03:18. Posted May 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fDaZhqFlrdE&list=PLrxfgDEc2NxZxK505w0Ncl3_riGBXWCPP

Carroll, Sean. “Post-Debate Reflections.” Sean Carroll, July 16, 2015. http://www.preposterousuniverse.com/blog/2014/02/24/post-debate-reflections/.

PowerfulJRE, “Joe Rogan Experience #1151 – Sean Carroll

”. Filmed August 1, 2018. YouTube video, 2:34:26. Posted August 1, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZtxzMb9CpTM


Notes

[1] Sean Carroll. “Introductions: Sean Carroll”. Filmed October 2012. YouTube video, 03:18. Posted May 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fDaZhqFlrdE&list=PLrxfgDEc2NxZxK505w0Ncl3_riGBXWCPP

[2] David Bourget and David J. Chalmers, “What Do Philosophers Believe?”, Philpapers.org, https://philpapers.org/archive/BOUWDP (accessed January 21, 2020).

[3] PowerfulJRE, “Joe Rogan Experience #1151 – Sean Carroll

”. Filmed August 1, 2018. YouTube video, 2:34:26. Posted August 1, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZtxzMb9CpTM

[4] Sean Carroll, “Post-Debate Reflections,” Sean Carroll, July 16, 2015. http://www.preposterousuniverse.com/blog/2014/02/24/post-debate-reflections/.

[5] This article has demonstrated Sean Carroll’s inconsistency. Ronald Cram has recently exposed Carroll’s dishonesty in an article entitled, Sean Carroll’s Dishonesty: The Debate of 2014.

 

Tagged with:
Share:

About the Author

By Braxton Hunter

Dr. Braxton Hunter is the former president of the Conference of Southern Baptist Evangelists (COSBE), and the current president of Trinity College of the Bible and Theological Seminary in Evansville, Indiana. As professor of apologetics , Dr. Hunter is passionate about the defense of the Christian faith in a skeptical world. In addition to conducting evangelistic apologetics events, he has pastored two churches. He has engaged in several live, moderated, academic debates on theological issues and the evidence for the truth of Christianity. He holds a B.A. in expository preaching, an M.A. in Theology, a Ph.D. in Christian Apologetics, and recently attained a DMin. Dr. Hunter is the author of Blinding Lights: The Glaring Evidences of the Christian Faith, Death is a Doorway, Core Facts: The Strategy for Understandable and Teachable Christian Defense, Evangelistic Apologetics: Compatibility and Integration, TruthBombs: Brief Thoughts on Big Issues, and The Chronicles of the Adonaifiction series. He is also a contributor to Anyone Can Be Saved: A Defense of "Traditional" Southern Baptist Soteriology. His Journal articles include: A Commentary on Article 8: The Free Will of Man, and A Review of What about Free Will?: Reconciling Our Choices with God's Sovereignty, By Scott Christensen (both from The Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry). He currently resides with his wife, Sarah and their two daughters, Jolie and Jaclyn, in Evansville, Indiana.