books philosophy science

Review by Manny, on Good Reads

[A cloud in Heaven. PLATO, LUCRETIUS, HUME, LAPLACE, DARWIN, THE REV BAYES and sundry others]

PLATO: Meeting to order. Manny has asked us to review Sean Carroll’s new book. I trust you’ve all read it?

LUCRETIUS: Say, how come we’re writing this for him? What’s going on, Plato?

PLATO: I owe Manny a little favor. Fellow-seekers after wisdom, we have eternity ahead of us. This won’t take more than an aeon or two. Who’s first?

LUCRETIUS: Okay, I didn’t like it much.

PLATO: Would you care to elaborate, dear Lucretius?

LUCRETIUS: Well, it’s a cheap rip-off of De Rerum Natura.

HUME: Modest as ever, I see.

LUCRETIUS: Look, he’s just updating my formula! Fear not the Gods, fear not death, there is nothing but atoms and void–

LAPLACE: Quantum fields.

LUCRETIUS: Whatever. He’s done a good job on the philosophy, I grant you that. But come on guys, he calls it “poetic naturalism” and where’s the poetry in his book?

LAPLACE: Where’s the naturalism in yours?

HUME: Touché!

LUCRETIUS: Now Pierre-Simon, you know that’s not fair. I was writing in the first century B.C.

LAPLACE: Well, you could have read Aristarchus. Or at least Hipparchus. Sean’s naturalism is state of the art.

[General murmurs of approval]

PLATO: With all due respect, brother Lucretius, I think Pierre-Simon makes a fair point. If one wishes to defend naturalism, an understanding of nature is required. It is evident that Sean understands these – ah – quantum fields very well. And he has a gift for explaining them.

LUCRETIUS: But the hexameters–

PLATO: Sean maybe lacks a feeling for the poetics of words. But he sees the poetics of geometry.

LAPLACE: I enjoyed his geometric demonstration that there can be no occult forces.

PLATO: Yes, his use of the – what was it called? –

LAPLACE: Feynman diagram.

PLATO: That was it. By turning the Feynman diagram through a right-angle, we see that all forces must already have revealed themselves. Very elegant. I must remember to show it to Eudoxus. Now, who else has comments?

THE REV BAYES: It is unworthy of me to say this, but I was touched that he believed more in my little rule than in God.

LAPLACE: You did well there, Tom.

THE REV BAYES: Perhaps too well. I fear people like Sean may be disappointed when they find out that–

ALL: Shhh!

THE REV BAYES: I’m sorry, I forgot we were still live. Charles, you look like you want to say something?

DARWIN: Well, I was also flattered that he took me so seriously. But remember, I always left open the question of how life originated. That “warm little pond”–

HUME: It’s true, I did feel at times that Sean’s protestations of rigorous scepticism were not entirely justified. I liked the kind things he said about me too. Though when he told us he was certain that science would soon understand the emergence of life, it almost sounded like–

THE REV BAYES: Faith? There’s nothing wrong with that, you know.

HUME: Yes, but he says science isn’t faith. I’d have felt reassured if he’d quoted Iris Fry’s book. There’s a woman after my own heart. But she’s not even mentioned.

WEYL: And the same story with the universe’s low initial entropy. I wasn’t afraid to compare it to a miracle in my book. But despite the fact that Sean constantly refers to the Past Condition, there’s hardly a word about why the world might have started in this extraordinary state.

PLATO: Gentlemen, gentlemen, please! Remember, it’s easy for us to nitpick. Sean’s just mortal.

DARWIN: True. Well, he’s better than Richard Dawkins.

VOLTAIRE: And Christopher Hitchens.

WEYL: And Victor Stenger.

THE REV BAYES: Not to mention A.C. Grayling.

[Elaborate facepalm from VOLTAIRE]

PLATO: So, all in all, we don’t think he’s so bad.

LUCRETIUS: No, no, his heart’s in the right place. As Pierre-Simon said, he does a good job of explaining the atoms and void.

LAPLACE: Quantum fields.

LUCRETIUS: Whatever. I still can’t forgive him for taking out my hexameters. But maybe that’s just me.

PLATO: Thank you Lucretius. Then, I hope that–

HUME: Wait! If Sean’s correct about the finality of death, then what are we all doing here?

[A moment of general consternation]

WITTGENSTEIN: Relax, everyone. We’re only a figure of speech.

PLATO: Ludwig, I don’t know what we’d do without you. So, we’re giving him a pass? All those in favor–


HUME: With the caveats already mentioned.

PLATO: Duly noted, David. Now thank you again, gentlemen, you’ve all been very kind. The first round of ambrosia is on me.

Referenced in