Poetic Naturalism

Poetic Naturalism April 30, 2020

I am a big fan of Sean Carroll for a whole host of reasons, but recently because of his book The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself (UK), which, if you know my philosophical positions on big ideas and my endless deference to conceptual nominalism, is a whole thesis defending this philosophy. Conceptual nominalism is a position whereby there are no objectively existing abstract ideas (morality, redness, justice, a chair [the idea thereof], definitions of words, etc.); all these ideas exist as constructions in (human) conception. A chair is a chair to a human, but not even necessarily all humans, and certainly not to a cat, an earwig or perhaps an alien. And an Amazon tribesperson might not see a regular chair as a chair, and someone else might argue a tree stump is a chair, where yet another person might not.

And so on.

You’ve read enough of my stuff to get this.

This position is, as far as I am concerned, not only philosophically defensible, but also evident in the world around us in all the arguments we all have, interpersonal, within groups, across societies and between cultures.

Sean Carroll gives his own nomenclature to this position, calling it Poetic Naturalism, and gives it a solid foundation in the science that he also knows so much about. Here, he describes it on his website (I’ll share with you some videos tomorrow). As a short synopsis, this is spot on:

Poetic Naturalism


Naturalism is a philosophy according to which there is only one world — the natural world, which exhibits unbroken patterns (the laws of nature), and which we can learn about through hypothesis testing and observation. In particular, there is no supernatural world — no gods, no spirits, no transcendent meanings.

I like to talk about a particular approach to naturalism, which can be thought of as Poetic. By that I mean to emphasize that, while there is only one world, there are many ways of talking about the world. “Ways of talking” shouldn’t be underestimated; they can otherwise be labeled “theories” or “models” or “vocabularies” or “stories,” and if a particular way of talking turns out to be sufficiently accurate and useful, the elements in its corresponding vocabulary deserve to be called real.

The poet Muriel Rukeyser once wrote, “The universe is made of stories, not atoms.” That is absolutely correct. There is more to the world than what happens; there are the ways we make sense of it by telling its story. The vocabulary we use is not handed to us from outside; it’s ultimately a matter of our choice.

A poetic naturalist will deny that notions like “right and wrong,” “purpose and duty,” or “beauty and ugliness” are part of the fundamental architecture of the world. The world is just the world, unfolding according to the patterns of nature, free of any judgmental attributes. But these moral and ethical and aesthetic vocabularies can be perfectly useful ways of talking about the world. The criteria for choosing the best such ways of talking will necessarily be different that the criteria we use for purely descriptive, scientific vocabularies. There won’t be a single rational way to delineate good from bad, sublime from repulsive. But we can still speak in such terms, and put in the hard work to make our actions live up to our own internal aspirations. We just have to admit that judgments come from within ourselves.

Here I collect some writings I’ve done, and talks I’ve given, elaborating on this basic idea. I claim no special originality here, of course; the relevant concepts are associated with a line of illustrious folks like EpicurusLucretiusIbn SinaElisabeth of BohemiaPierre-Simon LaplaceDavid HumeCharles DarwinDaniel Dennett, and many others (not all of whom were themselves poetic naturalists). For more, see my book The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself.

Facebook will allow you to declare Poetic Naturalism as your religion.


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