The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself by Sean Carroll (Epub)

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Ebook Info

  • Published: 2017
  • Number of pages: 496 pages
  • Format: Epub
  • File Size: 8.07 MB
  • Authors: Sean Carroll


Already internationally acclaimed for his elegant, lucid writing on the most challenging notions in modern physics, Sean Carroll is emerging as one of the greatest humanist thinkers of his generation as he brings his extraordinary intellect to bear not only on Higgs bosons and extra dimensions but now also on our deepest personal questions: Where are we? Who are we? Are our emotions, our beliefs, and our hopes and dreams ultimately meaningless out there in the void? Do human purpose and meaning fit into a scientific worldview?

In short chapters filled with intriguing historical anecdotes, personal asides, and rigorous exposition, readers learn the difference between how the world works at the quantum level, the cosmic level, and the human level—and then how each connects to the other. Carroll’s presentation of the principles that have guided the scientific revolution from Darwin and Einstein to the origins of life, consciousness, and the universe is dazzlingly unique.

Carroll shows how an avalanche of discoveries in the past few hundred years has changed our world and what really matters to us. Our lives are dwarfed like never before by the immensity of space and time, but they are redeemed by our capacity to comprehend it and give it meaning.

The Big Picture is an unprecedented scientific worldview, a tour de force that will sit on shelves alongside the works of Stephen Hawking, Carl Sagan, Daniel Dennett, and E. O. Wilson for years to come.

User’s Reviews

Review Praise for The Big PictureIncluded on Brain Picking’s “The Greatest Science Books of 2016” ListIncluded on NPR Science Friday’s “The Best Science Books of 2016” List“Weaving the threads of astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, and philosophy into a seamless narrative tapestry, Sean Carroll enthralls us with what we’ve figured out in the universe and humbles us with what we don’t yet understand. Yet in the end, it’s the meaning of it all that feeds your soul of curiosity.”—Neil deGrasse Tyson, host of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey“With profound intelligence and lucid, unpretentious language, Sean Carroll beautifully articulates the worldview suggested by contemporary naturalism. Thorny issues like free will, the direction of time, and the source of morality are clarified with elegance and insight. The Big Picture shows how the scientific worldview enriches our understanding of the universe and ourselves. A reliable account of our knowledge of the universe, it is also a serene meditation on our need for meaning. This is a book that should be read by everybody.”—Carlo Rovelli, author of Seven Brief Lessons on Physics”Vivid…impressive….Splendidly informative.”—The New York Times Book Review“Never hectoring, always tolerant, the author presents a seductively attractive picture of a universe whose ultimate laws lie within our grasp….[Carroll] gives us a highly enjoyable and lucid tour through a wide range of topics….Even if you don’t agree with what he says, you are unlikely to be enraged by such an urbane and engaging lecturer; more likely, you will be enthralled.”—The Wall Street Journal“A nuanced inquiry into ‘how our desire to matter fits in with the nature of reality at its deepest levels,’ in which Carroll offers an assuring dose of what he calls ‘existential therapy’ reconciling the various and often seemingly contradictory dimensions of our experience.”—Maria Popova, Brain Pickings“[The Big Picture is] a tour de force that offers a comprehensive snapshot of the human situation in our infinitely strange universe, and it does this with highly accessible language and engaging storytelling.”—Salon“Sean Carroll’s holistic vision accommodates the sciences and the humanities and has a high probability of provoking readers into clarifying their own views about the complex relations among science, religion, and morality.”—The Times Literary Supplement“The Big Picture impresses. Carroll is a lively and sympathetic author who writes as well about biology and philosophy as he does about his own field of physics.”—Financial Times“Carroll is the perfect guide on this wondrous journey of discovery. A brilliantly lucid exposition of profound philosophical and scientific issues in a language accessible to lay readers.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)”Carroll presents a means through which people can better understand themselves, their universe, and their conceptions of a meaningful life.”—Publishers Weekly“Guides us through several centuries’ worth of scientific discoveries to show how they have shaped our understanding and indeed how the laws of nature are linked to the most fundamental human questions of life, death, and our place in the cosmos.”—Library Journal“Intensely insightful.”—Scientific American“With its delightful blend of evocative love paens and four-dimensional integrals, The Big Picture offers a uniquely physical vision of life’s meaning. This is poetry.”—Physics Today“[Carroll] sets out to show how various phenomena, including thought, choice, consciousness, and value, hang together with the scientific account of reality that has been developed in physics in the past 100 years. He attempts to do all this without relying on specialized jargon from philosophy and physics and succeeds spectacularly in achieving both aims.”—Science“True to the grand scope of its title….Anyone who enjoys asking big questions will find a lot to consider.”—Booklist“Language philosophy, quantum mechanics, general relativity—they’re all in The Big Picture. Sean Carroll is a fantastically erudite and entertaining writer.”—Elizabeth Kolbert, author of Pulitzer Prize–winner The Sixth Extinction “From the big bang to the meaning of human existence, The Big Picture is exactly that—a magisterial, yet deeply fascinating, grand tour through the issues that really matter. Blending science and philosophy, Sean Carroll gives us a humane perspective on the universe and our place in it. As gripping as it is important, The Big Picture can change the way you think about the world.”—Neil Shubin, author of Your Inner Fish “In this timely exploration of the universe and its mysteries—both physical and metaphysical—Sean Carroll illuminates the world around us with clarity, beauty and, ultimately, with much needed wisdom.”—Deborah Blum, director of the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT and author of The Poisoner’s Handbook “Sean Carroll is a leading theoretical cosmologist with the added ability to write about his subject with unusual clarity, flare, and wit.”—Alan Lightman, author of The Accidental Universe and Einstein’s Dreams “Until now you might have gotten away believing modern physics is about things either too small or too far away to care much about. But no more. Sean Carroll’s new book reveals how physicists’ quest to better understand the fundamental laws of nature has led to astonishing insights into life, the universe, and everything. Above all, a courageous book, and an overdue one.”—Sabine Hossenfelder, Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies“Instead of feeling humbled and insignificant when gazing upward on a clear starry night, Carroll takes us by the hand and shows us how fantastic the inanimate physical universe is and how special each animate human can be. It is lucid, spirited, and penetrating.”—Michael S. Gazzaniga, author of Who’s in Charge? and Tales from Both Sides of the Brain“Sean Carroll’s lucid The Big Picture reveals how the universe works and our place in it. Carroll, a philosophically sophisticated physicist, discusses consciousness without gimmicks, and deftly shows how current physics is so solid that it rules out ESP forever.”—Steven Pinker, author of The Better Angels of Our Nature

Reviews from Amazon users, collected at the time the book is getting published on UniedVRG. It can be related to shiping or paper quality instead of the book content:

⭐ I was disappointed that this book devoted so many chapters just to attacking theology. Write about what you know, Sean. That’s why I bought the book. What animus drives you to delve into dismissing theology? Your basic argument throughout the book went like this: Science provides a better explanation of origins than does religion, so religion should be dismissed. You make the mistake of discussing theology only through the eyes of physics. Just like I wouldn’t want a Jesuit priest to explain quantum field theory, I don’t want a physicist to explain theology.

⭐ The Big Picture by Sean Carroll is an excellent book for anyone who wants a concise, understandable, and we’ll written overview of modern science, with an emphasis on quantum mechanics and the philosophy of Poetic Naturalism. In this review I will focus on the philosophical side of his work and particularly his treatment of issues related to consciousness.As Carroll puts it, “Naturalism” claims that there is just one world, the natural world… (while) “Poetic” reminds us that there is more than one way of talking about the world . He describes these different ways of talking about the world as an “interconnected series of models appropriate at different levels”. From this perspective, physics, chemistry, biology, and even psychology and sociology are simply different but useful ways of talking about the same world.From a scientific perspective, the most fundamental way of talking about the world is quantum field theory and, more specifically, the Core Theory, a term coined by Nobel Laueate Frank Wilczek. The Core Theory may be viewed as quantum field theory within a “domain of applicability” that includes most of the universe in which we live but excludes certain phenomena (e.g. dark matter, the big bang and black holes). Though the Core Theory is not the elusive Theory of Everything, it has been validated by so much data from so many experiments that it may be as close as we ever get to scientific certainty. As Carroll puts it, “We can be confident that the Core Theory, accounting for the substances and processes we experience in our everyday life, is correct. A thousand years from now we will have learned a lot more about the fundamental nature of physics, but we will still use the Core Theory to talk about this particular layer of reality”. That is an audacious claim, but Carroll supports that claim with rigorous scientific reasoning.Carroll views higher level or “coarse grained theories” such as chemistry and biology as “emergent” and describes them as “… speaking different languages, but offering compatible descriptions of the same underlying phenomena in their respective domains of applicability”. For example, chemistry and biology are emergent models of the universe, compatible with each other and the Core Theory, but with unique utilities in their particular domain of applicability. He briefly mentions supervenience, the view that emergent theories exist in an ontological hierarchy where higher level theories rest on more fundamental theories. For example, there could be no change at the level of biology without there being a change in the underlying chemistry. Similarly, there could be no change at the level of chemistry absent a change in the more fundamental physics. All of the models are interconnected and interdependent. Though each model has its own unique utility and coherence, that utility and coherence ultimately rests on a consistency with other more fundamental models.Unfortunately, Carroll’s treatment of how different emergent models relate to each other alternates between autonomous or semiautonomous utility on the one hand and consistency with more fundamental models on the other. Though he warns readers not to begin a sentence in one model and end it in another, by moving between these two criteria for the validity of those models, he committs a very similar error. He frequently refers to consistency or compatibility among different models as essential, but also writes, “Within their respective domains of applicability, each theory is autonomous—complete and self-contained, neither relying on the other”. This is just one example of where he suggests that the soundness of a model can be evaluated by its utility and internal coherence, and without reference to consistency with more fundamental models. In my opinion, when this level of credence is given to utility, one has entered a slippery slope that can lead to invalid ontological conclusions. Now, the criteria of utility does have its own domain of applicability, namely when the theory does not make ontological claims. For example, there are languages or ways of talking about everything from hair styling to stamp collecting that do not make claims about fundamental reality. Even Newtonian physics has its utility within its particular domain of applicability. In these areas, utility is a perfectly reasonable criteria. But when it comes to any model that claims to reflect, at some level, an underlying reality, utility by itself is an inadequate criteria.Another example is theism, a world view that Carroll does an excellent job demonstrating why it is not only unnecessary but a way of looking at the world but one that is ultimately inconsistent with the Core Theory. But if one evaluates the validity of theism, and particularly the theism embodied in major world religions such as Jewdaism, Christianity, and Islam, from the perspective of their utility, one is headed for an ontological train wreck. Who can deny the comfort (i.e. utility) that faith in a loving god and a blissful after life has given millions if not billions of people? But does that mean that such a world view is real in the same sense that the Core Theory is real? Of course not.The same logic applies to the role of consciousness in human behavior. Though there may be personal or social utility in the belief that conscious intent is responsible for human behavior, such a position is inconsistent with everything we know from cognitive science and everything we know about how the world works according to the Core Theory. Behavior emerges from complex brain activity, not inner experiences. The fact that our brain is responsible for both behavior and consciousness, at approximately the same time, gives rise to the illusion that conscious intent causes behavior. It is no more reasonable to claim that consciousness is responsible for behavior than to claim that a god is responsible for behavior or that a roosters crowing causes the sun to rise.Carroll tries to get around this by claiming that consciousness is just another way of talking about brain activity and the deeper layers of chemistry and physics. Unfortunately, reducing consciousness to a way of talking about experience fails to solve the Hard Problem. Consciousness is more than just a way of talking about brain states. It is dependent for its existence and form on those states, but is not identical to them. I do not claim to know what consciousness is, but whatever it is, it is more than words.Thus, poetic naturalism fails as a satisfactory philosophy of mind on two counts. First, it fails to give an adequate understanding of inner experience and secondly, it provides credence to the idea that consciousness is responsible for behavior. The first failure is understandable; the Hard Problem is hard for a reason and no one has yet come up with a satisfactory solution to it. As David Chalmers has said, that may take a hundred years. But Carroll should have seen the second failure coming. By allowing for the claim that consciousness can be responsible for behavior, he is opening the door for a new element in the Core Theory, an element he has argued persuasively does not exist. If it existed, this new element or property, somehow related to connsciousness, would make David Chalmers a very happy camper, but for the Sean Carroll who describes the Core Theory with such reverence, not so much.In conclusion, The Big Picture is an excellent book on the current status of science and his portrait of Poetic Natualism as a unifying philosophy. For those reasons, I highly recommend it to interested lay readers. However, I also urge those readers to be very careful in analyzing his treatment of consciousness. I believe he made a significant error in that analysis, though the error could very easily be my own.

⭐ “Life” and “consciousness” do not denote essences distinct from matter; they are ways of talking about phenomena that emerge from the interplay of extraordinary complex systems. (location 263)There is the conscious knowledge of human beings as opposed to the sense knowledge of animals. We can see with our eyes that animals can see and hear and solve simple problems. We know about the “conscious knowledge of human beings” because we can make ourselves the subject of our own knowledge. One is a scientific observation and the other is a metaphysical observation. There is a great track record of success with scientific questions. However, there is no such track record of success with metaphysical questions.We don’t know how life began, or how consciousness arose. (location 306)What caused life to begin is a question in science. What is consciousness and how it arose is a question in metaphysics. The answer is that we can comprehend what human consciousness is because we have it. But we can’t define human consciousness. Knowing that the sky is blue means more than that light is entering the eye and a signal is going to the brain. It means an awareness of this. What is this awareness? This is a metaphysical question for which there is no answer.We can’t decide whether an individual human life actually matters if we don’t know what we mean by “human being.” (location 355)There are three equivalent explanations of what a human being is: 1) Humans are indefinabilites that become conscious of their own existence. 2) Humans are embodied spirits. 3) The human soul or form is spiritual.Essentially, naturalism is the idea that the world revealed to us by scientific investigation is the one true world. (location 400)In other words, naturalism means rejecting the method of inquiry called metaphysics. According to metaphysics, humans are superior to animals because we have free will. Form or soul is the principle or incomplete being that makes us equal to one another. Matter or body is the principle or incomplete being that makes us different from one another. The human soul is spiritual because we can comprehend free will but can’t explain what the relationship is between our self and our body.Why does the universe exist at all? (location 428)The universe is a collection of molecules. It is not a being. The universe is many beings. The universe exists only in the mind of the human who uses the word universe.Are we sure it (a unified physical reality) is sufficient to describe consciousness, perhaps the most perplexing aspect of our manifest world. (location 432)There are two worlds: the manifest world of our sense observations and the metaphysical world that arises from our transcendence, that is, our ability to make our selves the subject of our own knowledge.But what if the table is made of atoms? Would it be fair to say that the atoms are real, but not the table? (location 1732)If we look at a table and create an image of the table, the image is a mental being. The image is not real. However, the table itself is a collection of molecules. The table is many beings. To be is to be one. Unity is a property of being. I exist (cogito ergo sum) and I am a single unified being.You may have heard that there is a long-running dispute about the relationship between “faith” and “reason.” (location 1967)Faith and reason refers to two kinds of knowledge. Faith is knowledge God gives us or reveals to us. An example is life after death. The other kind of knowledge is based on observations, questions, and theories supported by evidence.Thinking about God in a rigorous was is not an easy task. (location 2247)Human are finite beings. A finite being’s essence limits its existence. An infinite being (God) is a pure act of existence without a limiting essence.For the sake of keeping things simple, let’s divide all of the possible ways of thinking about God into just two categories: theism (God exists) and atheism (no he doesn’t). (location 2259)There is an argument, not a proof, of God’s existence that is based on the assumption or hope that the universe is intelligible. There is no need to make a decision about God’s existence. Because of the historical event called the Resurrection of Jesus, we only have to decide only whether or not there is life after death.But if that’s true, the fact that we do experience evil is unambiguous evidence against the existence of God. (location 2285)The existence of evil is a reason to not believe in life after death. However, it has nothing to do with whether or not God exists. Human beings exist because God created us. This raises the question of what motivated God to create us. The only thing that could motivate God to do any thing is self-love. God created humans because He loved Himself as giving. But God could just as well love Himself without giving. Since we can’t understand why God created us, it makes no sense to try to understand why God created so much evil and human suffering.…God’s essence is mysterious and impenetrable to our minds. (location 2300)God is a pure act of existence without a limiting essence. When Moses asked God what His name was God said: “This is what you shall tell the Israelites: I AM sent me to you” (Exodus 3.14).And there is no immaterial soul that could possibly survive the body. (location 2423)This is correct. Many Catholics mistakenly think that the human soul goes to purgatory after death. However, this is just theological speculation to account for the gap between death and the Second Coming of Jesus.After all, it seems pretty obvious that time does exist, and that it’s passing all around us. (location 3026)It is not obvious to me. Time has to do with change and with the past and the future. Only the present is real. The past and the future are mental beings.Essentially every working professional biologist accepts the basic explanation provided by Darwin for the existence of complex structures in biological organisms. (location 3422)Natural selection just explains the adaptation of species to the environment. It does not explain common descent because of how rapidly animals descended from bacteria. It takes two decades for a single fertilized human egg to produce all of the cells in the human body. Bacteria transformed into giraffes in 100 million decades. One hundred million does not even begin to describe the complexity of a mammal. Only non-biologists think a billion years is a long time and that natural selection explains common descent.Nevertheless, fine-tuning is probably the most respectable argument in favor of theism. (location 4574).There is no explanation to date for why the mass of an electron is exactly what it is (fine-tuning). This is evidence that the universe is not intelligible and that God does not exist. However, the Big Bang and fine-tuning is a reason to believe God inspired the human authors of the Bible because the bible says God created the universe from nothing.The special feature of self-awareness, the ability to have a rich inner life and reflect on one’s place in the universe, seems to demand a special kind of explanation. (location 4802)We have a drive as human beings to know and understand everything. The explanation for self-awareness is that humans are able to turn in on themselves and catch themselves in the act of their own existence. The explanation for why humans exist is that there is a being (God) that created humans and keeps us in existence but that itself does not need a creator.The idea of a unified physical world has been enormously successful in many contexts, and there is every reasons to think that it will be able to account for consciousness as well. (location 4812)Science is successful in question arising from sense observations. There is no track record of success in questions arising from our ability to make ourselves the subject of our own knowledge. We can’t even define the conscious knowledge of human beings, never mind explaining it.Memories are physical things, located in your brain. (location 4991)Memories are mental beings. Saying they are physical things is like the guy who is collecting minerals and arranging them according to their color. He builds a chest of drawers and labels the drawers the colors of the rainbow. He puts a red mineral in the red drawer, a blue mineral in the blue drawer, and so on. One day he finds a white mineral. He goes back to his chest and says, “White minerals don’t exist.”None of this will necessarily convince a determined Cartesian dualist who wants to believe in immaterial souls. (location 5039)There are four solutions to the mind-body problem. The most irrational one is dualism because there is no evidence of immaterial substances. Slightly less irrational is materialism. Idealism, the idea that the material world is an illusion, makes far more sense than materialism and dualism. The solution judged to be true by rational people and supported by the evidence is that the mind-body problem is a mystery with the understanding that there are no mysteries in science. In science, there are only unanswered questions.A person has knowledge of something if they can (more or less) answer questions about it correctly or carry out the actions associated with it effectively. (location 5340)Knowledge is the openness of being to the manifestation of being.Do I, at the end of the day, have free will? (location 5736)It is very clear that we have free will when we do something that takes a lot of will power, like sticking to a diet.The volunteers were also observing a clock, and could report precisely when they made their decisions. Libet’s results seemed to indicate that there was a telltale pulse of brain activity before the subjects became consciously aware of their decision. (location 5802)There are three kinds of causality. Free will involves a final cause. If you spend 15 minutes washing your car, the final cause is having a clean car. In metaphysics, cause precedes the effect in the order causality, not time. If the cause preceded the effect in the order of time, there would be a cause not causing anything and an effect not being effected by anything. In physics, a causal system is one where the energy is constant. If you know the position and speed of a mass falling under gravity at one point in time, you can calculate its speed and position at any other point in time.I believe in naturalism, not because I would prefer it to be true, but because I thing it provides the best account of the world we see. (location 5866)Of course it does. But the best account of the world finite beings know about from our ability to make ourselves the subject of our own knowledge (free will, our existence as a single unified being) is the existence of an infinite being.There is no simplistic, undivided self, no tiny homunculus in the brain steering us around…. (location 6445)There certainly is an “undivided self.” Descartes read contribution to metaphysics is: I think, therefore I am. But Descartes was wrong to think there was a spiritual little man inside the brain that controlled the body like a driver controls a team of horses. The driver and the horses are two beings. A human being is one being.

⭐ This has got to be one of the most obtuse, tedious science-focused books I have ever read. I have to admit I stopped at chapter 14. I am tired of hearing about how we could be living in a simulation, etc

⭐ I just couldn’t get any further than page 103 and had to abandon it. Rehashing known facts without any apparent purpose or theme became excruciatingly unbearable. Life is too short to spend time reading books that don’t resonate with the reader. I have a science background and I’m open to philosophical considerations rather than just hard facts but there was no discernible connection or point to the way the topics were being discussed.

⭐ Sean Carroll is a successful theoretical physicist, skilled ponderer of philosophical questions and gifted communicator of science. He brings all these qualities to bear in his big-hearted, ambitious latest book “The Big Picture.” The book is part sweeping survey of some of the most thought-provoking ideas in modern science, part sweeping rumination on two of the most fundamental questions that we can ask: How do we gain knowledge of the world? And how do we distill meaning from an impersonal, purely physical universe?The book can roughly be divided into two parts. The first part can be titled “How do we know” and the second can be titled “What do we know”. The siren song weaving its way through Carroll’s narrative is called poetic naturalism. Poetic naturalism simply means that there are many ways to talk about reality, and all of them are valid as long as they are rooted in naturalism and consistent with one another. This is the central message of the book: we make up explanations about the world and we call these explanations “stories” or “models” or “ideas”, and all of them are valid in their own ways.The first part of the book explores some of the central concepts in the philosophy of science that make up poetic naturalism. Carroll starts from Aristotle and the ancient Greeks and progresses through the Arabs. He explores the investigations of Galileo in the seventeenth century. It was Galileo and his intellectual successor Isaac Newton who showed that the world operates according to self-sufficient physical laws that don’t necessarily require external causes. One of the most important concepts explored in the book is Bayesian thinking, in which one assigns probabilities to phenomena based on one’s previous understanding of the world and then updates this understanding (or “priors”) according to new evidence. Bayesian thinking is a powerful tool for distinguishing valid science from invalid science, and for distinguishing science from nonsense: one could in fact argue that all human belief systems operate (or should operate) according to Bayesian criteria. Bayesianism does introduce an element of subjectivity in the scientific process, but as Carroll demonstrates, this supposed bias has not harmed our investigations of natural phenomena and has allowed us to come up with accurate explanations.Another thread weaving its way through the book is that of emergence and domains of applicability. Emergence means the existence of properties that are not strictly reducible to their constituent parts. Although Carroll is a physicist and holds fundamental physics in high regard, he appreciates that chemistry has its own language and neuroscience has its own language, and these languages are as fundamental to their disciplines as photons and electrons are to physics. No field of inquiry is thus truly fundamental in an all-encompassing sense, since there are always emergent phenomena that offer stories and explanations in their own right. Emergence also manifests itself in the form of what are called effective theories in physics; these are theories in which the macroscopic behavior of a system does not depend in a unique way on a detailed microscopic description: for instance a container of air can be perfectly described by properties like its average temperature and pressure without resorting to descriptions of quarks and Higgs bosons. As long as the two domains are consistent with each other (what Carroll calls “planets of belief”) we are on firm ground.These ideas lay the foundation for the second half of the book which takes us on a sweeping sojourn through many of the key ideas of modern science. Carroll says that the most important description of the world comes from what’s called the ‘Core Theory’. This theory ties together the fundamental forces of nature and particles like the Higgs boson; it is grounded in general relativity and quantum mechanics. It can explain the entire physical universe, from atoms to the Big Bang, certainly in principle but often in practice. If there’s any one hard scientific lesson to take away from the book, it’s that the universe is made up of quantum fields. Later chapters deal with topics like evolution in real time, photosynthesis and metabolism, leading theories for the origins of life, thermodynamics and networks in the brain. When Carroll talks about entropy, complexity and the arrow of time he’s in his element; one important aspect of complexity which I had not quite appreciated is that complexity can actually result from an increase, not decrease, of entropy and disorder if guided the right way.The book also dwells in detail upon Rene Descartes since his ideas of dualism and pure thought seem to pose challenge to poetic naturalism, but as Carroll demonstrates, these challenges are illusory since both the mind and the body can be shown to operate based on well known physical principles. These ideas keep appearing in the later parts of the book in which Carroll deals with many thought experiments in philosophy and neuroscience that purport to ask questions about reality and consciousness. Some experiments involve zombies, others involve aliens simulating us; all are entertaining. A big question is subjective experience (or “qualia”) which is sometimes regarded as some kind of impenetrable domain that’s divorced from objective laws of nature. For the most part Carroll convincingly shows us that the same laws of nature that give rise to the motion of the planets also give rise to one’s perception of the color red, for instance. This section of the book involving famous conundrums like John Searle’s Chinese Room and ‘Mary the Color Scientist’ is fascinating and highly thought-provoking, and while the thought experiments have no clear resolution, Carroll’s point is that none of them violate the basic naturalistic structure of the universe and demand mysterious explanations. His discussion of consciousness is also very stimulating; he thinks that consciousness is not really a thing per se but an emergent property of organized matter. More succinctly, it’s a useful invention, a description of a particular way in which matter behaves rather than something that is beyond our current understanding of natural law; it is what we say rather than what is. Much of Carroll’s discussion here reminds me, as cheesy as it sounds, of a line from ‘The Matrix’: words like love, care and purpose are mere descriptions borne of language – what matters are the connections they imply.The book ends by taking us on a tour of some of the most important philosophical questions that human beings have asked themselves; questions of meaning, purpose, emotion and free will. Personally I found this section a bit rambling but I cannot really blame Carroll for this: none of these questions have a definitive answer and all are subject to speculation. On the other hand, this little tour provides non-specialists with an introduction to well-known philosophers and philosophies, including constructivism, deontology and utilitarianism. The big question here is how meaning can arise from the impersonal natural laws that have been described so far. Neither Carroll nor anyone else knows the answer, and the book simply makes the case that all these qualities are emergent properties that are all consistent with poetic naturalism. You may or may not be satisfied by this answer, but it certainly provides food for thought.In a book as ambitious as this one there’s bound to be some disagreement, and that’s a good thing. Here are some questions I had: Generally speaking Carroll is on more firm ground when talking about science rather than philosophy. Quite oddly at one point, he uses poetic naturalism to argue against opposition to gay marriage and LGBT rights. While his support for these issues is one I heartily share, I am not sure poetic naturalism is the best or the most persuasive reason to uphold these causes: we should support them not because of but in spite of naturalistic reasons. Also, Carroll who is a self-professed naturalist spends several paragraphs describing how all of the arguments for a supernatural God violate naturalism. However I think religion has a purpose beyond describing the real world, and ironically this purpose lends itself to the same analysis that Carroll does of human qualities like care and love. I would think that based on much of the book’s narrative, religion would be described as an emergent phenomenon that provides people with a set of stories and descriptions; these stories provide succor and and a sense of community. Are these stories real? They may not be, and they are certainly not grounded in natural law, but Carroll himself says at one point that models of the world should be used because they are useful, not because they claim to be real. Shouldn’t one say the same thing about the positive and personal aspects of religion?However, none of these concerns should detract from the sweeping scientific and philosophical journey the book takes us on. Carroll is an engaging, sympathetic and pleasant guide to the big picture, irrespective of whether you agree with him completely or not. Ranging over some of the most pressing questions that humanity has unearthed and continues to unearth, the one clear message in the book is an unambiguous one: we will always keep on searching, and this search will continue to propel humanity past unexpected and exciting horizons. More than anything else the discussion drives home the grandeur of the universe and the human mind, and this is grandeur we should all revel in. Perhaps this bit of wisdom from Carroll’s chapter on entropy where he is describing complexity in a cup of coffee sums it up best: “Those swirls in the cream mixing in the coffee? That’s us. Ephemeral patterns of complexity, riding a wave of increasing entropy from simple beginnings to a simple end. We should enjoy the ride.”

⭐ Honestly, it’s hard to even know where to start in reviewing this book. In looking at numerous other reviews, I see that the scope of the book has already been addressed, as well as Carroll’s methodology, book structure, and even the possibilities of some errors. While I’ve read a fair amount on many of the subjects on which Carroll touches in the book, I’m nowhere near expert enough to comment on the validity of the real details, especially not the physics.I guess that the best review I can offer is this: it should be required reading for everyone who has ever wondered about how we got here, why we are the way we are, and maybe what it all means. My only disappointment is that Carroll didn’t work in the answer “42” somehow in the book, even though he did reference “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” at some point.Here’s what I appreciated most about the book:1) Carroll walks you through every subject, step-by-step, such that there is never a topic about which you say, “But where the heck did he get that?” His methodology is clear and rigorous, consistent and concise throughout.2) As he moves from smaller details to ever-larger domains, he regularly refers you back to the foundations laid earlier as a reminder, so you see how the smaller pieces fit into the bigger puzzle.3) As often as he introduces challenging thought experiments from philosophy and science, he also relates them to every day situations that we all might experience.4) While he makes it clear that, given everything humanity has learned thus far, there is no reason to believe that there is any explanation needed but naturalism to describe the workings of the universe, from the tiniest subatomic particles to galaxies to the existence of life and human consciousness, he also describes clearly why there is no less reason to perceive it all as wondrous and amazing. Hence “poetic” naturalism is the most appropriate name, and I fully embrace it.5) As he moves to the conclusions and his “Ten Considerations,” he faces head-on the strengths and weaknesses of the different paths to morality, even the ones he suggests.There is so much more that I could write, but I’m still trying to process it all. In the end, I found it a marvelous, fascinating, illuminating, educational, challenging, and overall incredible book. Without a doubt, it’s in my personal top 5 books ever read.

⭐ I’ve read only a handful of books that have changed my life, and Sean Carroll’s The Big Picture counts as one of these rarities. Throughout my adulthood I have looked for a thing to call myself, and now at last I can feel at home with the designation, “aspiring poetic naturalist.” If you read this book, it’s possible that you’ll become one too. I worried at first that my nonscientific background would prevent me from appreciating Carroll’s work, but as other reviewers have mentioned the author’s prose is lucid and layperson-friendly. I even finished the book wondering how long it would take me to read fluently the path-integral quantum equation. (Yes, I grappled with Carroll’s explanation of it in the Appendix, like the apes in Kubrick’s 2001 casting rocks at the monolith.)Until I read Carroll’s work, I hadn’t appreciated our current knowledge of the natural world. After all, 96% of the universe is made up of energy and matter we don’t understand and can measure only by inference, so how smart can we really be? But it turns out that our species has advanced enough to be able to describe every important physical feature underlying our existence. Oh, there are very probably more particles and fields to discover, but their forces are either too weak or too short-lived to be of any consequence to our physical reality.When I meditated on this remarkable fact, a deep, calming satisfaction came over me. Here we are, films of consciousness roiling on spume cresting atop churning quantum waves in Vishnu’s bathtub, and we figured it out—down to the quarks and gluons, all the way back to an instant before the singularity. Sublime is the word we use to describe this kind of supremely human achievement.The most challenging part of the book comes at the end. How is the poetic naturalist to walk in this world? How does one cope with the estrangement, when 95% of humans believe in supernatural entities? What of meaning and purpose? What of the great moral truths?Carroll assures us that our moral compass is no more harmed by asserting the naturalness of reality than is the solidity of the earth we continue to stand on even after we’ve discovered it’s not really solid.But Carroll still leaves this budding naturalist with urgent problems to consider: In light of setbacks to the advancement of our species such as the 1995 controversy Carroll mentions concerning the “Statement on Teaching Evolution,” poetic naturalists must confront the important challenges of educating our youth. Carroll understands that the way we use language conditions in part our understanding and attitudes. He knows that the invention and infusion of transformative metaphors into our cultural consciousness provides one avenue of creating decent chances for social progress.At the end of his work Carroll offers us an example of one move he has made in the area of moral constructivism, but the solution with the greatest promise comes earlier in the book, where he uses new metaphors that describe human reality but also reflect a deeper understanding of the nature of things. For example, a poetic naturalist declines using metaphors that imply foundational truths, because she knows solid ground is an illusion.Instead of divine law or eternal forms, Carroll uses phrases like “planets of belief” to describe ethical and other types of local-space worldviews. Our moral epistemology, Carroll shows us, doesn’t require supernatural origination to justify a sacred place in our societies. Murder is no less abhorrent because we’ve found no evidence of a god telling us it’s so. Our moral truths abide—they continue to hold sway like gravitational fields (another transformative metaphor) Carroll asserts, because we continue to care. And caring is the one thing that matters in this universe.

⭐ I find it interesting how much time some atheists spend discussing god. And tedious. It seems like a pointless discussion. I do not believe in Bigfoot, but I have no desire to discuss it with anyone. If he doesn’t believe in god, but spends half the book talking about it…I think the gentleman protests too much.Of more concern is that he does finally come to the conclusion that it is all determined, it may not feel like it, but it is. He spends a few more chapters on why this is ok, but I was unmoved. Nor do I think he believes it because he continues to talk about decisions we can make. I do not see a significant difference for humanity between everything being run by god and everything being run by entropy.

⭐ Just finished reading “The Big Picture: on the origins of life, meaning, and the universe itself” by Sean Carroll. A good read, although some sections could have been tightened up a bit. I like his use of Bayesian probability to make various arguments although in some cases almost any assumptions could be plugged in. His treatment of entropy was different and I am not sure completely correct with a model of cream mixing into coffee his interpretation was like taking a JPEG at various times and the degree of compression possible was directly related to complexity and therefore entropy. He made no attempt to put this into Shannon information theory and he seemed to suggest entropy will increase according to the second law at first but then decrease? His approach to the origin of life was heavy on the importance of ATP and the use of the proton/electron gradient and the RNA world putting down metabolism first approach. He seems to think fatty acids and nucleotides will just be there in the environment. All this works up to discussions of “consciousness”, intelligence and free will that seems very similar to Dennett and Dawkins. From there he proceeds to “the meaning of it all” which I liked at first since he also clearly does not believe that science is ever going to help with ethics, morality or meaning. Surprisingly, he appears to have missed Dworkin’s work although he does go through the typical Hume and Kant discussion. Finally he ends with his own ten commandments or principles to live life by without any real justification. Overall, I would recommend this but I am not sure I came out with any tremendous revelations or insights.


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