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The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself Hardcover – Illustrated, 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
“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
- Item Weight : 1.5 pounds
- Hardcover : 480 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0525954821
- ISBN-13 : 978-0525954828
- Dimensions : 6.17 x 1.47 x 9.29 inches
- Publisher : Dutton; Illustrated edition (May 10, 2016)
- Language: : English
- Best Sellers Rank: #122,898 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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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.
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.”
Top reviews from other countries
Carroll is obviously more at home in the physics parts of the book. That is where he shines. I disagree with his treatment of emergence in the book, but it is notable that in his recorded "book tour" talks on YouTube, he seems to be leaning more towards a stronger form of emergentism than one finds in the book.
I'm less convinced by his chapters on biology (where reductionism doesn't really find much grip). But still, a good overview.