The title of physicist Sean Carroll’s latest book, The Big Picture: On the Origin of Life, Its Meaning, and the Universe Itself, is proof of his ambition. This book aims to, well, tie it all together. That’s no surprise; many popular science books are broad in scope and aim to connect disparate scientific information.
But The big picture is more philosophical than scientific, which is a bit of a starting point for Dr. Carroll. One of his other books, From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time, is equally ambitious but heavy on science. That book was largely about exploring and weighing different scientific options. His new book takes a step back and questions how we should think about these possibilities in the first place.
But don’t be discouraged if you prefer science to philosophy: Carroll weaves the two together seamlessly. The big picture lives up to its title. It starts with the Big Bang, explains how time works (based on ideas from Carroll’s previous book), covers chemistry, biology, computer science, evolution, abiogenesis (the study of how life on Earth began), quantum mechanics and neuroscience, all before we eventually come to a discussion about how consciousness is possible.
But before examining how philosophical and scientific questions often intersect, Carroll offers a framework for thinking about these questions. He introduces concepts such as Bayesian reasoning, and after taking readers through the early history of science, makes it clear that philosophy and science have long had a close relationship. In many ways, science is based on philosophical ideas about how we should weigh evidence.
The book is also, in Carroll’s words, “an explanation of and argument for naturalism.” Naturalism is a philosophy that states that there is only the natural world and no supernatural – no psychics, no ghosts and no God.
Science… is based on philosophical ideas about how we should weigh evidence.
But Carroll treats these views and their believers with respect. Instead of mocking them, he takes their claims seriously enough to investigate them using the same principles he uses for everything else in the book. Carroll previously argued with theologian William Lane Craig about the existence of God from a scientific perspective, so advocating naturalism is not new territory for him.
Carroll argues that the scientific view of the world is consistent and powerful, requiring nothing more than the natural to function, even if parts of our reality sometimes give the illusion of intelligent outside influence. For example, he shows how evolution functions on its own without having to rely on Intelligent Design and how chemicals can give birth to life on the early Earth despite the apparent improbability of that happening. None of this necessarily means there is no God (although Carroll makes some points that might suggest that). But it does show the power and self-sufficiency of our best scientific understanding of the world.
The big picture argues for a specific kind of naturalism, which Carroll calls “poetic naturalism.” “Poetic naturalism” differs from forms of naturalism that claim that things like human consciousness don’t really exist. What exists, the last argument goes, are atoms interacting with each other, creating the illusion from afar of a person with wishes and feelings. Poetic naturalism instead holds that consciousness is real, even though it is made of atoms.
Just because something is emerging (meaning “arising from the collective behavior of the pieces that make it up”) doesn’t mean that thing doesn’t exist. Cars are made of smaller things, but calling something a car is more useful than “that collection of metal pieces on top of round things made of rubber.” Carroll argues that consciousness is real in the same way. He even takes the argument further by applying it to the issue of free will.
Essentially, he argues, atoms don’t exist or cars exist. We just have two different kinds of vocabulary to talk about the microscopic world and the macroscopic, human world we live in. Both are valid and true; they are simply true within two different application areas. Both describe aspects of the same underlying reality.
The big picture
Throughout the book, Carroll delves into other hard-to-solve problems: How can we tell the difference between a sentient robot and one that imitates consciousness very well? How do we know that my idea of ”red” is the same as yours? Are you still who you are when we slowly replace your neurons with mechanical ‘neuristors’ – and if not, at what point will you stop being a person?
Carroll argues that the scientific view of the world … needs nothing but the natural to function, even though bits of our reality sometimes give the illusion of an intelligent outside influence.
If all that brain stuff proves too much for you, don’t worry: the book has plenty of zombies to help with that too.
In all his arguments, Carroll systematically explores possibilities and combines examples from various disciplines. He delves into difficult philosophical conundrums, but is not afraid to draw a definitive conclusion about them if he has a logical justification for doing so. You may not agree with all the things he says, but you will certainly enjoy how well reasoned they are and how much thought has clearly gone into them.
The big picture will probably lead to lots of interesting, common ground with the people around you. It certainly had that effect on me. However, the density of ideas means it’s not a fast read. Even as someone who was already familiar with many of these concepts, I found myself having to reread paragraphs or pause to think in order to understand everything.
Carroll asks the reader to juggle many concepts at once, which takes effort but is ultimately worth it. It feels like a hard workout in the gym, but for your mind. There are places in the book where you have to make an effort to understand a point, but once you do you’ll be glad you did.
List image by Penguin Random House