Scientism: Faith in Science and Non-Belief in God; Sean Carroll’s “The Big Picture”

nebula, creation, universe, wonder, unknown



Scientism, the belief that science can explain everything about the world and ourselves, is a religion, although not formally expressed as such. When I call it a religion, I mean that it is founded on faith, a faith that its proponents say is not faith, but rationality, but which is in fact a faith that denies rational objections to scientism.

There are many scientists who write books justifying their faith that science  gives the only answer to the question, “how should we live?”   Whether they do this to gather people into the fold or just to make money is a question I can’t answer.

Some–I’m thinking of Richard Dawkins in particular–are so convinced of the righteousness of their belief and the evil of religious faith that they would prohibit the practice of religion.  Others–I’m thinking of Sean Carroll–take a more balanced view, conceding there may be legitimate reasons for belief in God, but those reasons aren’t for them.  Carroll’s new book, “The Big Picture”, gives his account of a materialistic ethos that doesn’t need God.

I believe there are serious flaws in Carroll’s arguments used to justify his non-belief, particularly in the two foundation stones for his thesis:

  • Poetic Naturalism” is a philosophy that will enable one to lead a moral, satisfying life, one that doesn’t need God;
  • Bayesian probability analysis and abductive reasoning demonstrate that it is very unlikely that God exists.

I will also argue against Carroll’s view that atheism can sustain morality.


Carroll defines “Poetic Naturalism” as follows:

“Naturalism claims that there is just one world, the natural world…’Poetic’ reminds us that there is more than one way of talking about the world.   We find it natural to use a vocabulary of ‘causes’ and ‘reasons why’ things happen, but these ideas aren’t part of  how nature works at its deepest levels. “
—Sean Carrol, “The Big Picture”, pp 3-4.

Carroll goes on to say that phenomena that I put outside the purview of science—for example, love, morality, beauty—are “emergent”.   Let me explain this more fully:   often in science when descriptions at a molecular or atomic level become very complicated and collective phenomena are involved, it is easier to describe things in a semi-empirical way.   Thus, for viscous flow hydrodynamic equations are set up; or to analyze ferromagnetism a collective description, an Ising model, is used.

For example, when we say “water is wet”, we could (in principle) give a reductionist picture and explain what’s happening  in terms of the surface tension of water, and at a deeper level, by an analysis of intermolecular attractive forces.   In short, we very often use a different language to explain or describe what could ultimately be explained by fundamental laws of physics (down to the level of subatomic particles and field theory).¹

I call that view—that it’s only a matter of what descriptive language is used—a copout, a “scientism of the gaps”.    This position is not one that can be easily defended.  Indeed, poetry itself,  the joint appeal to our sensibilities of Shakespeare, Shelley and Bob Dylan, is not to be parsed by science.

So, as my subtitle suggests: the term “poetic naturalism” is an oxymoron.  It does not really explain, it just evades fundamental questions.


Carroll uses a combination of abductive reasoning², “Inference to the Best Explanation” (IBE), and Bayesian probability analysis to argue that it is very unlikely that God exists.   Here’s one such argument:

“We have two  competing propositions: one is that God exists, and that transcendental experiences represent…moments when we are close to divinity;  the other is naturalism, which would explain such experiences the same way it would explain dreams or hallucinations…To decide between them, we need to see which one coheres better with other things we  believe about the world.”
—ibid, p.134

Clearly Carroll believes the second explanation is the best, i.e. naturalism.    Others (myself among them) would believe that transcendental experiences cohere better with the existence of God, as does everything else we believe about the world.

Before discussing how Carroll applies Bayesian probability analysis to support naturalism, I’d like to emphasize some general points (taken from William “Matt” Briggs’ [“Statistician to the Stars”] blog post and book).   First, all probability is conditional, depends on evidence; such evidence may be facts, or it may be beliefs, beliefs founded on facts or knowledge, or—dare I say it—on Revelation. It’s just a way of working backwards from evidence to infer a probability.  Second, probability is quantitative.  You assign numerical values to  probability based on the evidence;  otherwise, there’s no way to judge between probabilities based on different evidence.

One well-known example of Bayesian analysis is the Monte Hall three door problem.   I want to  emphasize that Bayesian analysis requires quantitation (even if it’s just a best guess, and a definition of an appropriate population (or prior probability) to conform with updated information and evidence.  This isn’t what Carroll does.

Carroll argues that if God existed, he would create a world that provided overwhelmingly conclusive evidence for his existence:

“Imagine a world in which miracles happened frequently, rather than rarely or not at all.   Imagine a world in which all of the religious traditions from around the globe independently  came up with the same doctrines and stories about God… Imagine a world in which religious texts consistently provided specific, true, nonintuitive pieces of scientific information…Imagine a world in which souls survived after death, and frequently visited and interacted with the world of the living.  Imagine a world that was free of random suffering…In any of these worlds, diligent seekers of true ontology would quite rightly take those aspects of reality as  evidence for God’s existence.  It follows, as the night the day, that the absence of these features is evidence in favor of atheism. [emphasis added]
ibid., pp. 147-148

This view is simplistic in the extreme. It  does NOT follow “as the night, the day”, that the absence of these features is conclusive evidence for atheism. Consider just the statement that Scriptures should contain “specific, true, nonintuitive pieces of scientific information”.  The Bible is certainly not a science text.  It’s about how and why we should live.  Would a shepherd on the Judean Hills have made any sense out of Maxwell’s equations, or even Newton’s law of gravitational attraction?   Carroll’s argument here simply begs the question, assumes the answer he wishes us to believe.

To say that “God should make it easy to believe” is to support a proposition that ignores theology and philosophy.

Jesus said unto him, “Thomas, because thou hast seen Me, thou hast believed. Blessed are they that have not seen and yet have believed.” –John 20:29 (KJV)

That quote says it all.   I’ve argued in a blog post that there are excellent reasons why God does NOT make it easy to believe.    And there have been hosts of books on the problem of evil, theodicy, that show it is not truly evidence against the existence of God.

Let’s now consider a particular topic in Carroll’s “The Big Picture” for which his analysis is deficient:  Morality.


Carroll says that “Free Will” (our God-given faculty to make free choices) is an illusion, only a way of talking about how we conduct our affairs.  What does mean for morality?    How can there be ethical standards or moral values if we are not free to make decisions about our conduct, if they are predetermined by physical laws?

Let’s see what Carroll says about this; first, he acknowledges that without God there is no absolute moral standard:

“As Abraham learned, having an absolute moral standard such as God can be extraordinarily challenging.   But without God, there is no such standard [emphasis added] and that is challenging in its own way …Nature alone is no help. as we can’t extract ought from is;  the universe doesn’t pass moral judgments.”   
—Sean Carroll, “The Big Picture,” p. 495

Then, according to Carroll, morality must be a personal construction:

“We have no objective guidance on how to distinguish right from wrong: not from God, not from nature, not from the pure force of reason itself…Morality exists only insofar as we make it so, and other people might not pass judgments in the same way we do.”  ibid, p.412.


“Poetic Naturalism refuses to offer us the consolation of moral certainty …How you should act depends on who you are. [emphasis added]”  ibid, p. 415.

So, that’s the problem, and I don’t believe Carroll offers a solution, other than that of the doctor in Camus’ “The Plague”:

“‘ What on earth prompted you to take a hand in this?’
‘I don’t know. My… my code of morals, perhaps.’
‘Your code of morals. What code, if I may ask?’
‘Comprehension.’ “

 —Albert Camus, The Plague


There it is.   Poetic naturalism offers no support for a moral standard, or indeed, for any value system.   There is no reason we should take a system based (presumably) on Bayesian probability analysis and abductive reasoning to understand the world, other than that of the doctor in “The Plague”—it’s comprehensible.

And here I think is where Carroll falls in to the honey-trap of scientism—that which can be explained in a scientific, naturalistic mode is that which is to be believed, and nothing else.   There is not a logical reason to follow this;  in fact, at the very beginning of “The Big Picture” Carroll emphasizes that science has nothing to say about the supernatural.

So, I say Carroll’s “The Big Picture” is not that big.   It leaves out much of what is important and real for many of us.  But even so, reading his book, one gets the impression that Carroll is a thoughtful, learned, humane person.    I wish him well and hope he finds a belief system other than “Poetic Naturalism.”


¹Or could do so if we had the knowledge, time and inclination for the more fundamental explanation.

²I’ve discussed modes of rational inquiry, including abductive reasoning, in a post, “Why do we believe…”.

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6 thoughts on “Scientism: Faith in Science and Non-Belief in God; Sean Carroll’s “The Big Picture””

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  2. I have a minor issue with this. My issue relates to the competing explanations that are assessed on relation to an Abductive Argument.

    Where all of the competing explanations are natrualistic, we can have a degree of confidence in the result where there seems to be a Best Explanation.

    Where at least one of the competing explanations is naturalistic and at least one of the competing explanantions is supernatrualistic, we have a playing-field problem. It is not level.

    By this I mean that the naturalistic explanations pre-suppose the tested/evidenced/verified assumption that naturalism exists. The supernatrualistic explanations pre-suppose the untested/unevidenced/unverified assumption that supernatrualism exists. The playing-field is a very long way from being level.

    So why do proponents of the supernatrualistic explanations elevate their explanation(s) to the same level as natrualistic explanations when there is no sound basis for doing so?

    1. Thanks for your comment, Igor. It’s well reasoned, if one admits your premises. However, I think your assumption that “naturalism exists” (and I admit that I’m not exactly sure what you mean by that) can be challenged if you mean that naturalism can explain everything that needs to be explained. That, I believe is a logical error, “petitio principi,” or “begging the question.”

    2. Greetings duhem,

      I agree with your logic issue, so I should expand my point just a little bit.

      I do not claim that “naturalism can explain everything that needs to be explained”. I might re-state this as “where we have an evidenced/tested/verified explanation of something naturalistic, the explanation is (until now at least) naturalistic”. So this track record might give us confidence (but neither absolute certainty nor a guarantee) that a future explanation for something currently unexplained will be a naturalistic explanation.

      It may be the case (in the future) that something naturalistic, but previously unexplained, will be explained in non-naturalistic terms. It may also be the case (in the future) that something asserted to be non-naturalistic will be explained in evidenced/tested/verified naturalistic terms.

      So my simple point is this – so far, all evidenced/tested/verified explanations of something are naturalistic. As for future explanations, we won’t know until then. But given the track record to date of zero for non-naturalistic explanations, I am questioning why there is any confidence that a non-naturalistic explanation will eventuate. I would distinguish between hope and track-record based confidence. rgds.

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