Sean Carroll’s THE BIG PICTURE: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself, just published May 10th, is an ambitious, wide-ranging book not so much about cosmology (Carroll’s specialty at CalTech), as about the perspective we gain through cosmology and science in how we view our world and our place in it. Briefly, it’s about how to understand the universe and ourselves in purely materialistic, non-supernatural, terms, and how that’s OK.

The book is divided into six sections — Cosmos, Understanding, Essence, Complexity, Thinking, and Caring — and among those a total of 50 chapters, in about 430 pages of text (so the chapters are relatively short).

The first part defines Carroll’s idea of ‘poetic naturalism’, by which he means that while the world can be understood in purely naturalistic terms, we can use different kinds of ‘stories’ to describe the world at different levels of complexity. He summarizes these on page 20:


  1. There is only one world, the natural world.
  2. The world evolves according to unbroken patterns, the laws of nature.
  3. The only reliable way of learning about the world is by observing it.

Poetic naturalism:

  1. There are many ways of talking about the world.
  2. All good ways of talking must be consistent with one another and with the world.
  3. Our purposes in the moment determine the best way of talking.

The implications of this approach are straightforward. Yes, everything ultimately boils down to physics, but it makes little sense to speak of biological systems, for example, in terms of general relatively, quantum mechanics, and the Higgs boson. This strategy lets him, for example, discuss the notion of free will, which commentators in recent years (e.g. Sam Harris) almost gleefully like to claim does not exist in the intuitive sense most people share. Maybe so, Carroll says, but those insights are academic; there are still useful reasons to entertain the notion of free will when it comes to discussing human decisions and responsibilities.

I don’t think I’ll outline the entire book the way I often do in this blog, because the author has already done it for me, on *his* blog. But I will add a few words of description for each section.

  • Big Picture Part One: Cosmos. About the nature of reality, the ideas of naturalism and poetic naturalism, entropy and time’s arrow.
  • Big Picture Part Two: Understanding. How we learn about the world, Bayes’ theorm and updating credences, beliefs and doubts, different levels of complexity as ’emergences’, the idea of ‘planets of belief’, ideas of God and the divine, how different we’d expect the world to be if there *were* a God. [Note 1]
  • Big Picture Part Three: Essence. How what we know about the laws of physics rules out the possibility of psychic powers; about quantum mechanics and the Core theory (with, in an appendix, a deconstruction of what he calls The World of Everyday Experience, In One Equation, recently completed by the confirmation of the existence of the Higgs boson); constraints on whatever unknown physics remains to be discovered; the origin of the universe and the cosmological argument [about which Carroll has debated William Lane Craig]; why we can dismiss astrology, and… life after death.
  • Big Picture Part Four: Complexity. How complexity arises in the interplay between entropy and emergence; what life is, and about ATP, and whether metabolism or replication came first; evolution and lack of ‘purpose’ or goal; the fine-tuning argument for god and alternative explanations. [Note 2]
  • Big Picture Part Five: Thinking. About consciousness, Kahneman’s two modes of thinking, the idea that awareness brings about the ability to imagine alternatives [I see a pointer to SF here!]; mental biases; AI consciousness (with example from Heinlein’s Mistress); the mind-body problem; Chalmers’ philosophical zombie [as Robert J. Sawyer imagined in his latest novel]; and free will.
  • Big Picture Part Six: Caring. About morality, and how it cannot be derived from science or pure reason, and how anyway to find meaning in life. [Much like Dan Barker‘s notion; Carroll even quotes Rick Warren as Barker does.] Ending with a list of “Ten Considerations”, things to keep in mind while deciding how we want to live. And how the average human life span consists of three billion heartbeats.

Note 1: Carroll wonders, for example, whether evil, or the absence of evil, would affect the argument for the existence of God, in a Bayesian way. Moreover, it’s easy to imagine other worlds that would better support theism, p147.6: a world where miracles happen frequently; in which all religious traditions around the world come up with the same doctrines; a world in which the world is small, just Earth and the stars above; a world in which religious texts provided nonintuitive scientific information; a world in which humans were apart from the biology of all other creatures; a world in which souls obviously survived after death and communicated with living; a world of the just.

And here is how such ideas inform the thesis of my own contemplated book about science fiction and its intersection with science and naturalism: science fiction supplies grist for the Bayesian mill. Science fiction supplies endless examples of how the universe might be, or could be, different, that undermine the assumptions most people make about the nature of the reality and the presumptions that humans (and the American way of life!) are ordained by some god.

Note 2: Carroll asks, what did theism actually predict about the nature of the universe? A Hebrew dome, a patch of land surrounded by water.

On a related point, the fine-tuning argument keys off the supposed suitability of the universe to support life. This argument would be more persuasive if the universe really were just a patch of land surrounded by a dome of water. In fact, the universe is enormous, really really enormous, and only the most infinitismal portion of it, so far as we can tell, is suitable for life.

I’ll go ahead and list his ‘Ten Considerations’, with (glosses) and [a comment or two of my own].

  1. Life isn’t forever. (And that’s what makes it special; eternity would be boring.)
  2. Desire is built into life. (From desire comes caring, and our potential to choose to make the world a better place.)
  3. What matters is what matters to people. (The universe doesn’t care. But we care about it, and ourselves.)
  4. We can always do better. p422b:

    We nevertheless make progress, both at understanding the world and at living within it. It may seem strange to claim the existence of moral progress when there isn’t even an objective standard of morality, but that’s exactly what we find in human history. Progress comes, not from new discoveries in an imaginary science of morality, but from being more honest and rigorous with ourselves…

  5. It pays to listen. (Don’t ignore whatever wisdom might be found in the ancient religions, just because their ontology is obsolete.)
  6. There is no natural way to be. (We are unavoidably ‘natural’, but nature is not a guide.)
  7. It takes all kinds. This insight is new to me, p424b:

    Much of what has been written about the quest to lead a meaningful life has been produced by people who (1) enjoy thinking deeply and carefully about such things, and (2) enjoy writing down what they have thought about. Consequently, we see certain kinds of virtues celebrated: imagination, variety, passion, artistic expression. .. But a fulfilled life might alternatively be characterized by reliability, obedience, honor, contentment… The right way to live for one person might not suit someone else.

    [Of course of course, different strokes for different folks –but it’s striking to realize that the values of people who write about values are the values of writers…]

  8. The universe is in our hands. (At one level we’re all just physics and chemistry, but at another level we’re capable of reflection and making decisions about how to behave.)

    We won’t be able to stave off the heat death of the universe, but we can alter bodies, transform our planet, and someday spread life through the galaxy.

  9. We can do better than happiness. (Is a pill to be perfectly happy the ideal goal? Life is a process, and perhaps a life is better characterized by its achievements than how happy it was.)
  10. Reality guides us. (Beware mental biases that aren’t true but make you happy. It takes effort, but it’s worth it.) 427e:

    We have aspirations that reach higher than happiness. We’ve learned so much about the scope and workings of the universe, and about how to live together and find meaning and purpose in our lives, precisely because we are ultimately unwilling to take comforting illusions as final answers.

The final chapter of the book recounts the author’s childhood churchgoing experience (mine was very similar) and a couple key incidents that triggered his doubt. (Mine were similarly incidental, yet crucial.) Why he prefers wonder over awe. How the universe is intelligible.

And in the final pages, beginning 431.7:

Poetic naturalism offers a rich and rewarding way to apprehend the world, but it’s a philosophy that calls for a bit of fortitude, a willingness to discard what isn’t working…

Facing up to reality can make us feel the need for some existential therapy. We are floating in a purposeless cosmos, confronting the inevitability of death, wondering what any of it means. But we’re only adrift if we choose to be. Humanity is graduating into adulthood, leaving behind the comfortable protocols of its childhood upbringing and being forced to fend for itself. It’s intimidating and wearying, but the victories are all the more sweet.

In summary, this is a book with many familiar ideas from my reading of other books, but which is valuable for assembling them all into one place, and placing them into a coherent, even inspiring, framework, about a non-supernatural understanding of the universe our species lives in. The future of humanity, if we survive, is to acknowledge the reality of our universe, giving up primitive, childish myths that privilege one tribe over another. As an overview of many ideas in a naturalistic framework, as a capture of the best thinking by one of the best science writers on the planet, this is a top shelf book, and highly recommended.

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