Why "Poetic Naturalism" Needs Moral Geometry

Our best "Big Picture" of the universe might be Sean Carroll's “poetic naturalism.” But his skillfully framed physics and philosophy synthesis needs more “moral geometry” and a “naturalistic fallacy” update.

1.1 In The Big Picture, Sean Carroll skillfully frames “poetic naturalism.” His physics and philosophy palette covers the "the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself" well, but it needs more “moral geometry,” and a “naturalistic fallacy” update.

1.2 “Naturalism” means an entirely material universe (no separate spiritual/divine realm).

1.3 “Poetic” suggests we have many valid “ways of talking about the” universe.

2.1 Phenomena like phase transitions and emergence require different levels of vocabulary. They complicate behaviors of collectives (which can differ radically from behaviors of their parts).

2.2 “The mother of all phase transitions"? The emergence of life.

2.3. Physics has only equal and opposite reactions—nothing “chooses.” But arrangements of atoms arose with varying reactions—life uses energy to choose (creating two new pattern types).

3.1 For those arrangements of atoms called humans, a vocabulary of morality/ethics applies.

3.2 “Poetic naturalism has little to say about ethics”—Carroll feels ethical systems are “constructed… not discovered.” They don’t apply “equally… to all persons” (objectively, or experimentally).

3.3 For Carroll, “we can’t extract ought from is.” But this needs two corrections.

3.4 An “is” to stop its is-ness ending might entail logical oughts—it ought not to destroy whatever supplies its needs (see “vehicular viability”). 

3.5 Plus certain aspects of ethics are as objective and certain as geometry (or engineering or chess).

4.1 Game theory studies behavioral rules = objective “mathematical theory of…morality" (Gregory Chaitin). It can discover objective patterns, just like geometry did about triangles.

4.2 Evolution is itself a game theorist, constantly testing behavioral rules (praxotypes), not only “endless forms most beautiful.”

4.3 Evolution equipped us with ethical-rule processors, akin to our language-rule processors. They’re both critical social coordination capabilities, both culturally configurable.

5.1 Certain rules perform better—take Prisoner's Dilemma games, wherein “rationalists do worse than the Golden Ruled. And Jewish norms beat Christian ethics” (+see “golden punishment rule”).

5.2 OK "rationalists,” how can foreseeably bad results rightly be called "rational"? Surely a misnomer (+see logical limits of self-maximization).

5.3 Game theory hasn’t had its Euclid. Nor mass teaching. But its results can improve collective performance (just as geometry improves engineering).

6.1 Our evolution involved survival games much simpler than Prisoners Dilemmas. Only fools work with bad cooperators (+we selectively bred ourselves for cooperation).

6.2 Any big picture of humanity should include that some moral issues have objective constraints.


Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker Cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions.

A still from the film "We Became Fragments" by Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller, part of the Global Oneness Project library.

Photo: Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller / Global Oneness Project
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Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

NOAA expects a busy season

According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.

This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

  • The ocean there is warmer than usual.
  • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
  • Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
  • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

But wait.

ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

Image source: NOAA

Batten down the hatches early

If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

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