We are faced with the quandary every day of our lives. We are without question physical beings in a physical world. In theory, it should be obvious that physics, then, offers the last word on all that we are. But by virtue of the fact that we can understand the word “I” in all its implications, it is also quite clear that there must be something that physics cannot explain. We must be more than particles, more than a chemical reaction.
Sean Carroll is a physicist with a brace of wonderfully smart questions, intelligent answers that hew to the latest scientific discoveries and an open mind willing to explore philosophy in order to get to the bottom of it all. The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself is a thoroughly engaging look at everything in the universe, from the bottom up. Carroll calls for a perspective of poetic naturalism to understand that we have to explain reality at different levels of granularity. Reality, understanding and life itself are all down to appropriate storytelling.
Carroll packs quite a bit of science and philosophy in this book, but he writes well and in brief chapters, so that all this is quite easily read. The book is divided into six larger parts: Cosmos, Understanding, Essence, Complexity, Thinking and Caring. Carroll offers a lot of mini-biographies of scientists who changed the world, and lots of great science on parade. He spends quite a bit of time in the world of philosophy, trying to understand how we understand. Expect to come away with a new understanding of and respect for Bayesian reasoning.
Carroll is not averse to making big statements. He avers that the current level of quantum physics explains everything we encounter in every day life, including consciousness and caring. That is to say, he is certain we need no “woo” factor to account for our understanding of the word “I.” And while time travel may be possible, psychic powers of the sort we love to attribute to super-heroes and the supernatural are simply not possible.
Throughout the book, Sean Carroll tells a variety of stories, with skill and excitement. Moreover, he’s adept at weaving the smaller stories into bigger ones, and the bigger ones into the overall thrust of this book. The structure of the book mirrors one of the themes, then; different levels of granularity call for different levels of storytelling. Sure, you can describe a table atom by atom, or even particle by particle. You can describe it at a quantum level. But it’s a waste of time and misses the point, the “tableness” of the table.
For all his adherence to the world of fact, there is nonetheless a political agenda somewhere in this book – a ghost in the machine. You’ll hear more than a bit about global climate change and lots of pointers to arguments about facts. The political agenda, so to speak is not more threatening than this. The world is real. We must live in the real world. We ignore the facts of this real world at our peril.
Sean Carroll is an amazing speaker. You can hear our lightning-round interview by following this link and downloading the MP3 audio file. Or you can listen right here:
You can hear our in-depth interview by following this link and downloading the MP3 audio file. Or settle back, enjoy your lunch and listen right here: