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The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself Hardcover – May 10, 2016
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Included on Brain Picking's "The Greatest Science Books of 2016" List
Included 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 (prepub alert)
"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
About the Author
SEAN CARROLL is a theoretical physicist at the California Institute of Technology. He received his PhD in 1993 from Harvard University. Recently, Carroll has worked on the foundations of quantum mechanics, the arrow of time, and the emergence of complexity. He has been awarded prizes and fellowships by the National Science Foundation, NASA, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the American Physical Society, the American Institute of Physics, and the Royal Society of London. His most recent award, in 2014, was from the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Carroll has appeared on The Colbert Report (twice), PBS’s NOVA, and Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman, and he frequently serves as a science consultant for film and television. He has been interviewed by various NPR shows, Scientific American, Wired, and The New York Times. He has given a TED talk on the multiverse that has more than one million views, and he has participated in a number of well-attended public debates concerning material in his new book, including one in New York City in 2014 with Eben Alexander.
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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.”
Those who have wanted to read Sean Carroll but didn't want to wade through the science will be happy with this book. In the spirit of Alexander von Humboldt, Carroll tucks much of the complex science away in an appendix for those who would like more detail. But, that doesn't mean this book is light on the science. To the contrary, Carroll, as usual, takes some of the most complex issues science has to offer, and packages them in a form that even people with little or no scientific background can understand. In fact, this book in particular is aimed at those who might have little education in the sciences and and even less education about heuristics. It welcomes everyone to join in a thoughtful conversation about understanding what we know about our world and the wider universe. Does it have a purpose? Does its design imply any type of creator? Instead of insulting those who say that it does (I am guilty of this myself), Carroll provided a real way to put our beliefs to the test. He was very willing to consider the views of those who believe in God and provide a detailed method, which is both kind and built on logic, that can help us figure out whether a belief is true.
If the preceding paragraph suggests to you that those with extensive education in the sciences (including cognitive science) will be bored or find nothing new, then I have represented the book poorly. Even people whose undergrad and grad career consisted of many of the following courses will find new ways of thinking about that information and connecting it to the Big Picture.
Samples of related course material:
Intro to Cognitive Science (including Kahneman's heuristics)
Biochem (including chemiosmosis)
Evolution (including environmental modification of genes)
Origin of life research (including Martin, Russell, and Lane's work on bioenergetics and others working on RNA world)
Philosophy of Mind
Carroll opened the door for *everyone* to think about and discuss what evidence we would need for any belief to be validated. Instead of dismissing ideas of belief outright, Carroll employs a very gentle, yet fiercely logical style of problem solving. The result was powerful and reminded me of the deep humility and unfailing logic with which Darwin wrote his many books, including his autobiography.
Prior to this book, if anyone had asked me if I wanted to read yet another book on creationism vs. science or the hard problem of consciousness (involving Chalmers unrealistic and pseudoscientific zombies), the answer would have been a resounding, "NO!" I feel as if too much of my thinking time has been wasted by these concepts that serve only to anchor our progress. I want to push past all of that. I want to never again allow that type of scientific sabotage to ruin the progress I might make in understanding the universe in a real and more complete way than my current view allows. Often reading about the efforts of those who wage war on evidence based knowledge leaves me frustrated, often wishing I could get that time back. That was not the case with this book. The whole time, even though I was reading things I thought I was tired of reading, my neurons were flooding my brain with wonderful dopamine bursts. Reflexive "Wows" kept reverberating from my brain. The book fits into the category "MINDGASM!"
In a book, which includes such topics as:
how we know what we know
the forces that govern the universe
properties of elements in relation to other elements
emergence and complexity
how we gather and evaluate scientific evidence
Carroll, in his usual relatable fashion, seamlessly included discussions about today's relevant issues in society such as transgender rights, marriage equality. I recall reading E.O. Wilson's book Social Conquest Of Earth and feeling somewhat confused about the organization of the book. He kept social issues separate throughout the book and then bombarded the reader with a litany of important social issues. I love both Wilson and his book, but the social issues didn't fit and felt as if they should be in another book. Carroll's humorous (yet serious) approach when discussing such issues makes me feel as if I am reading a 20 something university student with his finger on the pulse of the upcoming generations, while at other times, when he is discussing concepts that take a long time to learn, I feel as if I am reading a book written by a scientifically minded Zarathustra. In a crazy way, this writing style really works.
Parts One, Two, and Three (the first half of the book) were basically an excellent summary of and entire 4 year experience as a major in Cognitive Science. After introducing such concepts as understanding cause and effect, understanding how things move and how momentum is conserved, and understanding how we come to adopt our belief systems, Carroll examined the many heuristics we employ when trying to understand how we know what we know. To figure this out, he introduced a sort of "best of" collection of thinkers. Marrying Cog Sci 101 (with a strong emphasis on Baysian reasoning) with Epistemology and Philosophy 101, he tried to understand what thinkers such as Descartes and Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia, and Kahneman thought about the nature of reality. The main questions scholars have been asking are, "How can I know what I know? How can I know what exists? How can I know if my beliefs reflect reality?" A take home point from Section Two is that people are all entitled to have their own prior beliefs. However, they are not entitled to have their own likelihood. There is an objective likelihood to be discovered, and it takes solid reasoning, and not tightly held belief, to make that discovery. **** see note at end.
While discussing heuristics, Carroll gave a shout out to one of my favorite books -- Mistakes Were Made, but Not by Me. I love that book and am often disappointed that not too many people I have talked to seem to appreciate it in the way I do. I love that it got the recognition it deserved. Many books like it are sort of self-help oriented and veer too far from the science. Many authors fail to question if they are using the very heuristics they are writing about. Still others fail to question the methods to the studies they choose to include, brining down the overall quality of the book. But, Tavris and Aronson did much better than most avoiding these pitfalls. They deserved some recognition, not from the self-help crowd, but rather from a scientists who is celebrated for his keen logic.
In Part 4, Carroll related a humorous story about ending up on a plane, seated next to origin of life researcher Mike Russel. That was a great lead in to explaining Darwinian evolution, cellular formation, emergence, complexity (his complexity research sounds great! I am definitely going to read everything I can get my hand on concerning that), and ATP synthase (my very favorite protein channel!). If you are a bit fuzzy about what Free Energy is, this section will clear that up and relate it to exactly how your very own body works. (What a delicious section. I was too excited to see what came next. So I did not stop to listen again or take notes on this section. As soon as I am done writing this review, I am going to listen to this entire section again.)
Theodosius Dobzhansky said, “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution”. Thanks to scientists such as Sean Carroll, Mike Russell, Jeremy England, and others bridging the gap between living and non living systems, it will soon be said that Nothing in Biology or the larger universe Makes Sense Except in the Light of Thermodynamics. If you want the best possible summary of how thermodynamics fits into the story of living systems (including how those systems likely came into being and how they evolved), then you will love this section.
In Part Five, Carroll took on the philosophy of mind debate. You may have taken courses or read extensively about The Chinese Room, Mary, What it's Like to Be a Bat, Eliminative Materialism, and The Hard Problem. Even if you are extremely familiar with all of this, I would recommend reading Carroll's summary. Wow! I was engaged in a way that surprised me. He breathed new life into these debates. I was a tiny bit sad that he left out Andy Clark's work (especially in relation to Chalmers), but considering this book was more than 17 hours long (Audible), I understand that he didn't have time for everything. It's just that Clark's work (along with the Churchland's work) is what made Philosophy of Mind so great for me.
Carroll ended the book with what I can only say was a beautiful essay I didn't know I needed to read. If you are unfamiliar with the Is vs Ought problem, you can find out in this section what it is and why should you care. If you are well familiar with this question, you will enjoy the discussion provided on Carroll about morality. Deeply satisfying! A+! He ended on a more personal note than any thing I have read by him to date. It was truly a lovely book, from start to finish.
I think Carroll will be remembered along side of Copernicus and Darwin for providing us with gentle but clear evidence that we are not special. Far from being a depressing nihilistic view of the world and universe, Carroll showed his reader (even if you read with your ears) how reality is actually more special than any false belief about being special. Understanding can be the deepest religion of all (idk if Carroll would put it quite like that, but it's my takeaway message).
****I was going to include in this review a bit about Sean Carroll's "planet v black hole belief system," but I posted about it on Facebook and butchered what was an excellent analogy. I can only say that you need to read it for yourself. If you get the analogy, you will forever ask yourself, "Am I being a black hole right now? "Am I following the evidence or am I fooling myself and holding tight to heuristically driven fallacies?" I can see a new viral way of thinking springing from this analogy -- e.g. insults or memes that include the statement, "Stop being such a black hole!"
But it is nevertheless a different book in several ways. He carefully develops his arguments, first introducing the reader to the techniques of inquiry and highlighting the need to update their credences in face of new evidence or observations. He thus paves the way to the discussion of topics that cover our current understanding of the universe we can see (the observable universe) and of the emergence of complex patterns, such as life and intelligence, despite the natural tendency towards higher and higher entropy as the universe evolves. In this context, life arises as a natural consequence of certain given conditions.
Despite the inexistence of natural rules to guide human life, our domain or level of existence is reason enough to give meaning to things that we praise and to develop concepts of moral and ethics that society undoubtly needs to keep evolving and becoming better, he continues.
Sean Carroll makes an effort to convey the message avoiding difficult concepts and formal language, intending not to become a dense reading, and succeeds in that. The book is very pleasant to read, and should not be difficult for those with some general background in science.