Review: The Big Picture

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This is my Amazon review of Sean Carroll’s “The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself”. Although I am a theologian, I read a lot of books by atheist/materialist scientists. In my reviews of these books, I leave religion out if they do. But Dr. Carroll’s book is as much about his scientific theme as it is a book explicitly critical of religion all the way through. In the following review I mention this only briefly, but I have written also a longer piece here in the blog covering this ground more thoroughly. The link will take you to it. Meanwhile here is a link to Carroll’s book on Amazon. Hope you enjoy the review. —

Sean Carroll’s book has two broad themes. The first is to explain to us how it is that everything we observe in the universe, including all of what makes up human experience, emerges from the physics that lies at the heart of the universe, what Carroll calls “the core theory”; quantum field theory and the “standard model” of particle physics. Here he makes the case that what exists is what emerges from very special (low entropy) conditions in the universe’s past. It all comes down to the the second law of thermodynamics, the fundamental forces and the fact that the universe is far from an equilibrium state. In this he does an excellent non-technical job of describing how it is that the universe we find produces so much complexity from but humble beginnings. As he moves up the chain of complexity (emergence and phase changes) he applies the same principles of development to everything from galaxies and stars to life, consciousness, and the complex mentality of human beings. He admits that we have a much better explanation of the emergence of stars and even life from physics and chemistry than we do for the emergence of consciousness from biology. But he is confident his model works all the way to the top.

In his second theme, Carroll is concerned not only with establishing that physics tells the right story, but that it is the only story and no other story is reasonable. Put another way, by his lights, any other story is highly unlikely. By this he doesn’t mean that we don’t use different languages to speak of particles, biology, or feelings, but that nothing besides emergence from purely physical roots is going on as concerns consciousness, moral sensibility, and the seeming appearance of free will. Since the argument that there is more than physics going on here comes mostly from religion, he pointedly and repeatedly criticizes it claiming it has no genuine bearing on anything real. To be sure he doesn’t claim to know that there is no God, only to have established (he believes) that God’s reality is very very unlikely. One wonders why he feels the need to be so forceful about this, but the reason is clear enough in the book’s last section where he attempts to make sense of experiences that (to many) most strongly suggest that there is something besides physics going on; meanings in life, love, moral choices, desires, a sense of self, and what seems to us to be robust free will. To explain these, he applies the same model of emergence and phase change to consciousness and from there to all things mental. He confidently asserts that all of these things are nothing more than “a way of talking” about phenomena that are, in the end, nothing but physics.

What perturbs me about this second theme is certainly not his desire to mention (at least) and critique the competition but that he critiques such a straw man version of it. Time and time again he demonstrates his grasp of the nuances of physics while criticizing grossly superficial and unnuanced notions of what religion is and what it says.

There are other recent mainstream books that cover much of this same ground as concerns cosmic evolution, life, and even consciousness. Dr. Carroll is good here. He writes well, non-technically, and does an good job of stretching the idea of emergence into the human experience. That this is a part of the whole story is undoubtedly true, but it is unwise to declare that it is the whole story, or even likely the whole story, without knowing the whole story (which he admits is not known), or at least appreciating what the competition actually says.

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