Tag Archives: reading

The Big Picture by Sean Carroll

God, you little devil.


Sean Carroll’s The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself is a primer for the state of science today. But at the heart of book lies a core belief and explanation for poetic naturalism. Just what is poetic naturalism? Here’s Carroll in an interview with WIRED’s Eric Niiler:

Atheism is a reaction against theism. It is purely a rejection of an idea. It’s not a positive substantive idea about how the world is. Naturalism is a counterpart to theism. Theism says there’s the physical world and god. Naturalism says there’s only the natural world. There are no spirits, no deities, or anything else. Poetic naturalism emphasizes that there are many ways of talking about the natural world. The fact that the underlying laws of physics are deterministic and impersonal does not mean that at the human level we can’t talk about ideas about reasons and goals and purposes and free will. So poetic naturalism is one way of reconciling what we are sure about the world at an intuitive level. A world that has children. Reconciling that with all the wonderful counterintuitive things about modern science.

For a layman, Carroll breaks down today’s fundamentals of science to painstaking detail (outside of the use of equations) and builds them back up to something simpler that speak to the justification for poetic naturalism. He dives into physics, philosophy, quantum mechanics, biology, and many other fields. He tackles many questions that are asked from casual daydreamers and the depths of Sci-Fi alike. And it all comes wrapped in an idea that there lies something between atheism and theism.

Carroll strives to pit Science against Theism on an even playing field, or one that’s as level as possible; Modern science challenging the ever shrinking God of the gaps. But for all of Carroll’s scientific professing, he is careful never to discount just how vast the gaps remain. By sheer virtue of his lessons on Bayesian credences, he never shuts out theism entirely, always leaving the door unlocked and possibly cracked open.

We’ll see that the existence of life provides, at best, a small boost to the probability that theism is true—while related features of the universe provide an extremely large boost for naturalism.

Chapters and sections read like deep troughs with a steep decline. As soon as the reader is introduced to a concept, Carroll has them barreling down a chasm at breakneck speed, only to bring them up for air in the last few paragraphs. I understood hardly a lick of the depths, but that’s okay. The meat lies in the simplified 30-percent of the pages. I took the rest as hard scientific justification, in the event the reader has any doubts as where Carroll comes up with these notions.

After 433 pages, Core Theory and quantum mechanics and multiverses and up quarks and down quarks are still a mystery to me. But what I did learn — what I can say without a shadow of a doubt — is with as much as we’ve discovered of the Universe, we still know very little. Maybe that will always be the case. Maybe there will always exist the God of the gaps with those gaps shrinking exponentially, but never quite stamped out.

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Jordan Shapiro on the current reading habits of children

Jordan Shapiro writing for Forbes:

Of course, it is easier to frame the story as paper vs. digital. It gives us permission not to engage with our kids. We can blame the video games and apps rather than blaming ourselves. Parents need to take responsibility for raising thoughtful, empathic, open-minded adults. Books are a crucial part of the equation. But even if we eliminated every digital technology from our lives, our kids still won’t read books unless we tell them in no uncertain terms that books are an important part of being an adult.

Shamefully, at the age of 28, I have discovered that the substance contained in non-fiction books is unmatched by video games. I have never been much of a reader but have been challenging myself to read more and more each year.

This year, I have decided to do a majority of reading on my devices. Once I finish a book, I buy the print version as a trophy or achievement. Is buying a book twice crazy? Probably. But the author gets a small bonus and it has me yearning to read cover-to-cover. One step toward gamifying my reading experience.

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On Reading

Text has always challenged me. Regardless of copyright date, I look at books as insurmountable volumes rooted in earth’s history, just as permanent and timeless as a mountain or sea. Even the simplest publications feel as if they have always existed, their authors fables to the present day.

And yet, I had always felt a strange desire to write my own novel; to join the ranks of the immortal mystics, scholars and dreamers before me; to create art in a timeless medium.

I grew up in a world that had just given birth to the video game; whose culture was firmly rooted in television soaps, sitcoms and late night specials; on the cusp of harnessnessing the Internet. It was easy to skirt around the written word with spoon-fed visuals and peer-less interactivity. The attention and focus required to unfold a 40-hour story could be easily condensed into a relatively similiar experience of a 2-hour film so why waste my time. With quick summaries from literary classmates and short prayers that a pop quiz wasn’t in my near future, evading grade-school required reading was easy enough.

And then I discovered music. I joined a high-school punk band, and discovered vast amounts of angst fueled lyrics that I quickly paralleled to poetry. I found a connection to the sharp medium with content that could be as dense as a novel yet consumed quicker than a 30-minute televised drama. I toiled over the deeper meanings found in liner-notes and poems. I fell in love with the tiny format, incorporating it into my own lyrics.

This discovery sent me on a journey through college, attempting to challenge even the most admired poetry with lyrics from underground bands. Using this as fuel, I entered college English 101 with the assignment to write a short 5-10 page fiction. I had never attempted this sort of challenge before. I had never even focused the slightest bit of attention on the short-story format. After presenting my completed work (a piece judging myself through the eyes of a close friend), my professor planted the idea that I should pursue creative writing. I took the notion with a grain of salt and continued to focus on music, film and political science.

During the remainder of my college tenure, I realized that I would get lost in writing long-winded reports about Cuba’s standing with the US, the impact of international gangs or research on comparative politics but hated reading the material. While I couldn’t help but feel I was beginning to miss details by solely relying on lectures, cliff-notes and chapter summaries, I still could not bring myself to focus on the dense works in textbooks or even highly praised fiction.

Was it A.D.H.D.? Had the age of electronic media ruined my ability to focus? Little thoughts like these would trickle into my consciousness. While, others found solace in the great works of Tolkien and Vonnegut, I couldn’t focus on Harry Potter.

Then I found The Egg; a short story so profound I trembled to my core. Immediately after the read, the harsh reality of how much I had missed by avoiding the written word came like a rushing tidal wave. Though reluctant, I decided to set off on a journey for beauty in a world built with text.

Like many, I had fallen in love with the Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. With such respect for the films, I felt a duty to read the source material. After completing The Fellowship of the Ring, I noticed a change in my own vocabulary. Somehow, Tolkien’s words had soaked into my unconscious and allowed me to produce sentences and convincing arguments with gravitas and ease. The impact of reading had become prevalent in my own nature.

I continued hesitating to dive into novels the same way I would dive into a video games of the same length; a realization that left me unable to argue that pouring 20+ hours into any given story was a waste. On top of this, there was a notion that writing was a primitive method of storytelling made better by music, film and video games. Yet, a splinter in my mind told me that there was a single thread that ran though all of these mediums; something that enabled the existence of sheet music, screenplays and punched tape.

The answser was paper. Paper has been a generational through-line for the invention of nearly all forms of art. This was the notion that would propel me to commit to the written word.

Thus, my exploration began. I needed to know how a novelist could invest weeks, months or years into a single piece of work. Just as my technical support training had taught me the inter-workings of computers, I needed to understand the inter-workings of story structure, character development and prose.

I decided enough was enough. If I wanted to understand this medium and conquer my Everest, I needed to write a novel. November 2013 was growing close. I decided to take on the NaNoWriMo challenge.

Since completing the challenge, I have had a much larger appreciation for the written word. That is to say I am beginning to understand the written word at both mechanical and artistic levels. I clamor at the chance to start a new book often times before I finish the last.

Yet, like the scar left on Frodo from the Morgul-blade, there is still a lingering pain in reading. I have not completely tackled the fear that there is simply not enough time to read; that too many profound novels will be left void of my awareness or time before my death that there is simply no point to start reading the wrong ones now.

I love to write. Often times, I dream about the idea of writing for a living. I used to be deterred by the notion that because I was never a reader, I will never be a writer. I now challenge this notion. I offer that it was not until I decided to write that I learned to read. Now that I have learned to read, I hope to learn to write.

Next up: On Writing by Stephen King.


Originally posted on Medium.com

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