Live Q&As, Past and Future

On Friday I had a few minutes free, and did an experiment: put my iPhone on a tripod, pointed it at myself, and did a live video on my public Facebook page, taking questions from anyone who happened by. There were some technical glitches, as one might expect from a short-notice happening. The sound wasn’t working when I first started, and in the recording below the video fails (replacing the actual recording with a still image of me sideways, for inexplicable reasons) just when the sound starts working. (I don’t think this happened during the actual event, but maybe it did and everyone was too polite to mention it.) And for some reason the video keeps going long after the 20-some minutes for which I was actually recording.

But overall I think it was fun and potentially worth repeating. If I were to make this an occasional thing, how best to do it? This time around I literally just read off a selection of questions that people were typing into the Facebook comment box. Alternatively, I could just talk on some particular topic, or I could solicit questions ahead of time and pick out some good ones to answer in detail.

What do you folks think? Also — is Facebook Live the right tool for this? I know the kids these days use all sorts of different technologies. No guarantees that I’ll have time to do this regularly, but it’s worth contemplating.

What makes the most sense to talk about in live chats?
Posted in Internet, Personal | 27 Comments

Consciousness and Downward Causation

For many people, the phenomenon of consciousness is the best evidence we have that there must be something important missing in our basic physical description of the world. According to this worry, a bunch of atoms and particles, mindlessly obeying the laws of physics, can’t actually experience the way a conscious creature does. There’s no such thing as “what it is to be like” a collection of purely physical atoms; it would lack qualia, the irreducibly subjective components of our experience of the world. One argument for this conclusion is that we can conceive of collections of atoms that behave physically in exactly the same way as ordinary humans, but don’t have those inner experiences — philosophical zombies. (If you think about it carefully, I would claim, you would realize that zombies are harder to conceive of than you might originally have guessed — but that’s an argument for another time.)

The folks who find this line of reasoning compelling are not necessarily traditional Cartesian dualists who think that there is an immaterial soul distinct from the body. On the contrary, they often appreciate the arguments against “substance dualism,” and have a high degree of respect for the laws of physics (which don’t seem to need or provide evidence for any non-physical influences on our atoms). But still, they insist, there’s no way to just throw a bunch of mindless physical matter together and expect it to experience true consciousness.

People who want to dance this tricky two-step — respect for the laws of physics, but an insistence that consciousness can’t reduce to the physical — are forced to face up to a certain problem, which we might call the causal box argument. It goes like this. (Feel free to replace “physical particles” with “quantum fields” if you want to be fastidious.)

  1. Consciousness cannot be accounted for by physical particles obeying mindless equations.
  2. Human beings seem to be made up — even if not exclusively — of physical particles.
  3. To the best of our knowledge, those particles obey mindless equations, without exception.
  4. Therefore, consciousness does not exist.

Nobody actually believes this argument, let us hasten to add — they typically just deny one of the premises.

But there is a tiny sliver of wiggle room that might allow us to salvage something special about consciousness without giving up on the laws of physics — the concept of downward causation. Here we’re invoking the idea that there are different levels at which we can describe reality, as I discussed in The Big Picture at great length. We say that “higher” (more coarse-grained) levels are emergent, but that word means different things to different people. So-called “weak” emergence just says the obvious thing, that higher-level notions like the fluidity or solidity of a material substance emerge out of the properties of its microscopic constituents. In principle, if not in practice, the microscopic description is absolutely complete and comprehensive. A “strong” form of emergence would suggest that something truly new comes into being at the higher levels, something that just isn’t there in the microscopic description.

Downward causation is one manifestation of this strong-emergentist attitude. It’s the idea that what happens at lower levels can be directly influenced (causally acted upon) by what is happening at the higher levels. The idea, in other words, that you can’t really understand the microscopic behavior without knowing something about the macroscopic.

There is no reason to think that anything like downward causation really happens in the world, at least not down to the level of particles and forces. While I was writing The Big Picture, I grumbled on Twitter about how people kept talking about it but how I didn’t want to discuss it in the book; naturally, I was hectored into writing something about it.

But you can see why the concept of downward causation might be attractive to someone who doesn’t think that consciousness can be accounted for by the fields and equations of the Core Theory. Sure, the idea would be, maybe electrons and nuclei act according to the laws of physics, but those laws need to include feedback from higher levels onto that microscopic behavior — including whether or not those particles are part of a conscious creature. In that way, consciousness can play a decisive, causal role in the universe, without actually violating any physical laws.

One person who thinks that way is John Searle, the extremely distinguished philosopher from Berkeley (and originator of the Chinese Room argument). I recently received an email from Henrik Røed Sherling, who took a class with Searle and came across this very issue. He sent me this email, which he was kind enough to allow me to reproduce here:

Hi Professor Carroll,

I read your book and was at the same time awestruck and angered, because I thought your entire section on the mind was both well-written and awfully wrong — until I started thinking about it, that is. Now I genuinely don’t know what to think anymore, but I’m trying to work through it by writing a paper on the topic.

I took Philosophy of Mind with John Searle last semester at UC Berkeley. He convinced me of a lot of ideas of which your book has now disabused me. But despite your occasionally effective jabs at Searle, you never explicitly refute his own theory of the mind, Biological Naturalism. I want to do that, using an argument from your book, but I first need to make sure that I properly understand it.

Searle says this of consciousness: it is caused by neuronal processes and realized in neuronal systems, but is not ontologically reducible to these; consciousness is not just a word we have for something else that is more fundamental. He uses the following analogy to visualize his description: consciousness is to the mind like fluidity is to water. It’s a higher-level feature caused by lower-level features and realized in a system of said lower-level features. Of course, for his version of consciousness to escape the charge of epiphenomenalism, he needs the higher-level feature in this analogy to act causally on the lower-level features — he needs downward causation. In typical fashion he says that “no one in their right mind” can say that solidity does not act causally when a hammer strikes a nail, but it appears to me that this is what you are saying.

So to my questions. Is it right to say that your argument against the existence of downward causation boils down to the incompatible vocabularies of lower-level and higher-level theories? I.e. that there is no such thing as a gluon in Fluid Dynamics, nor anything such as a fluid in the Standard Model, so a cause in one theory cannot have an effect in the other simply because causes and effects are different things in the different theories; gluons don’t affect fluidity, temperaturs and pressures do; fluids don’t affect gluons, quarks and fields do. If I have understood you right, then there couldn’t be any upward causation either. In which case Searle’s theory is not only epiphenomenal, it’s plain inaccurate from the get-go; he wants consciousness to both be a higher-level feature of neuronal processes and to be caused by them. Did I get this right?

Best regards,
Henrik Røed Sherling

Here was my reply:

Dear Henrik–

Thanks for writing. Genuinely not knowing what to think is always an acceptable stance!

I think your summary of my views are pretty accurate. As I say on p. 375, poetic naturalists tend not to be impressed by downward causation, but not by upward causation either! At least, not if your theory of each individual level is complete and consistent.

Part of the issue is, as often happens, an inconsistent use of a natural-language word, in this case “cause.” The kinds of dynamical, explain-this-occurrence causes that we’re talking about here are a different beast than inter-level implications (that one might be tempted to sloppily refer to as “causes”). Features of a lower level, like conservation of energy, can certainly imply or entail features of higher-level descriptions; and indeed the converse is also possible. But saying that such implications are “causes” is to mean something completely different than when we say “swinging my elbow caused the glass of wine to fall to the floor.”

So, I like to think I’m in my right mind, and I’m happy to admit that solidity acts causally when a hammer strikes a nail. But I don’t describe that nail as a collection of particles obeying the Core Theory *and* additionally as a solid object that a hammer can hit; we should use one language or the other. At the level of elementary particles, there’s no such concept as “solidity,” and it doesn’t act causally.

To be perfectly careful — all this is how we currently see things according to modern physics. An electron responds to the other fields precisely at its location, in quantitatively well-understood ways that make no reference to whether it’s in a nail, in a brain, or in interstellar space. We can of course imagine that this understanding is wrong, and that future investigations will reveal the electron really does care about those things. That would be the greatest discovery in physics since quantum mechanics itself, perhaps of all time; but I’m not holding my breath.

I really do think that enormous confusion is caused in many areas — not just consciousness, but free will and even more purely physical phenomena — by the simple mistake of starting sentences in one language or layer of description (“I thought about summoning up the will power to resist that extra slice of pizza…”) but then ending them in a completely different vocabulary (“… but my atoms obeyed the laws of the Standard Model, so what could I do?”) The dynamical rules of the Core Theory aren’t just vague suggestions; they are absolutely precise statements about how the quantum fields making up you and me behave under any circumstances (within the “everyday life” domain of validity). And those rules say that the behavior of, say, an electron is determined by the local values of other quantum fields at the position of the electron — and by nothing else. (That’s “locality” or “microcausality” in quantum field theory.) In particular, as long as the quantum fields at the precise position of the electron are the same, the larger context in which it is embedded is utterly irrelevant.

It’s possible that the real world is different, and there is such inter-level feedback. That’s an experimentally testable question! As I mentioned to Henrik, it would be the greatest scientific discovery of our lifetimes. And there’s basically no evidence that it’s true. But it’s possible.

So I don’t think downward causation is of any help to attempts to free the phenomenon of consciousness from arising in a completely conventional way from the collective behavior of microscopic physical constituents of matter. We’re allowed to talk about consciousness as a real, causally efficacious phenomenon — as long as we stick to the appropriate human-scale level of description. But electrons get along just fine without it.

Posted in Big Picture, Philosophy, Science | 381 Comments

Maybe We Do Not Live in a Simulation: The Resolution Conundrum

Greetings from bucolic Banff, Canada, where we’re finishing up the biennial Foundational Questions Institute conference. To a large extent, this event fulfills the maxim that physicists like to fly to beautiful, exotic locations, and once there they sit in hotel rooms and talk to other physicists. We did manage to sneak out into nature a couple of times, but even there we were tasked with discussing profound questions about the nature of reality. Evidence: here is Steve Giddings, our discussion leader on a trip up the Banff Gondola, being protected from the rain as he courageously took notes on our debate over “What Is an Event?” (My answer: an outdated notion, a relic of our past classical ontologies.)


One fun part of the conference was a “Science Speed-Dating” event, where a few of the scientists and philosophers sat at tables to chat with interested folks who switched tables every twenty minutes. One of the participants was philosopher David Chalmers, who decided to talk about the question of whether we live in a computer simulation. You probably heard about this idea long ago, but public discussion of the possibility was recently re-ignited when Elon Musk came out as an advocate.

At David’s table, one of the younger audience members raised a good point: even simulated civilizations will have the ability to run simulations of their own. But a simulated civilization won’t have access to as much computing power as the one that is simulating it, so the lower-level sims will necessarily have lower resolution. No matter how powerful the top-level civilization might be, there will be a bottom level that doesn’t actually have the ability to run realistic civilizations at all.

This raises a conundrum, I suggest, for the standard simulation argument — i.e. not only the offhand suggestion “maybe we live in a simulation,” but the positive assertion that we probably do. Here is one version of that argument:

  1. We can easily imagine creating many simulated civilizations.
  2. Things that are that easy to imagine are likely to happen, at least somewhere in the universe.
  3. Therefore, there are probably many civilizations being simulated within the lifetime of our universe. Enough that there are many more simulated people than people like us.
  4. Likewise, it is easy to imagine that our universe is just one of a large number of universes being simulated by a higher civilization.
  5. Given a meta-universe with many observers (perhaps of some specified type), we should assume we are typical within the set of all such observers.
  6. A typical observer is likely to be in one of the simulations (at some level), rather than a member of the top-level civilization.
  7. Therefore, we probably live in a simulation.

Of course one is welcome to poke holes in any of the steps of this argument. But let’s for the moment imagine that we accept them. And let’s add the observation that the hierarchy of simulations eventually bottoms out, at a set of sims that don’t themselves have the ability to perform effective simulations. Given the above logic, including the idea that civilizations that have the ability to construct simulations usually construct many of them, we inevitably conclude:

  • We probably live in the lowest-level simulation, the one without an ability to perform effective simulations. That’s where the vast majority of observers are to be found.

Hopefully the conundrum is clear. The argument started with the premise that it wasn’t that hard to imagine simulating a civilization — but the conclusion is that we shouldn’t be able to do that at all. This is a contradiction, therefore one of the premises must be false.

This isn’t such an unusual outcome in these quasi-anthropic “we are typical observers” kinds of arguments. The measure on all such observers often gets concentrated on some particular subset of the distribution, which might not look like we look at all. In multiverse cosmology this shows up as the “youngness paradox.”

Personally I think that premise 1. (it’s easy to perform simulations) is a bit questionable, and premise 5. (we should assume we are typical observers) is more or less completely without justification. If we know that we are members of some very homogeneous ensemble, where every member is basically the same, then by all means typicality is a sensible assumption. But when ensembles are highly heterogeneous, and we actually know something about our specific situation, there’s no reason to assume we are typical. As James Hartle and Mark Srednicki have pointed out, that’s a fake kind of humility — by asserting that “we are typical” in the multiverse, we’re actually claiming that “typical observers are like us.” Who’s to say that is true?

I highly doubt this is an original argument, so probably simulation cognoscenti have debated it back and forth, and likely there are standard responses. But it illustrates the trickiness of reasoning about who we are in a very big cosmos.

Posted in Philosophy, Science | 102 Comments

You Should Love (or at least respect) the Schrödinger Equation

Over at the twitter dot com website, there has been a briefly-trending topic #fav7films, discussing your favorite seven films. Part of the purpose of being on twitter is to one-up the competition, so I instead listed my #fav7equations. Slightly cleaned up, the equations I chose as my seven favorites are:

  1. {\bf F} = m{\bf a}
  2. \partial L/\partial {\bf x} = \partial_t ({\partial L}/{\partial {\dot {\bf x}}})
  3. {\mathrm d}*F = J
  4. S = k \log W
  5. ds^2 = -{\mathrm d}t^2 + {\mathrm d}{\bf x}^2
  6. G_{ab} = 8\pi G T_{ab}
  7. \hat{H}|\psi\rangle = i\partial_t |\psi\rangle

In order: Newton’s Second Law of motion, the Euler-Lagrange equation, Maxwell’s equations in terms of differential forms, Boltzmann’s definition of entropy, the metric for Minkowski spacetime (special relativity), Einstein’s equation for spacetime curvature (general relativity), and the Schrödinger equation of quantum mechanics. Feel free to Google them for more info, even if equations aren’t your thing. They represent a series of extraordinary insights in the development of physics, from the 1600’s to the present day.

Of course people chimed in with their own favorites, which is all in the spirit of the thing. But one misconception came up that is probably worth correcting: people don’t appreciate how important and all-encompassing the Schrödinger equation is.

I blame society. Or, more accurately, I blame how we teach quantum mechanics. Not that the standard treatment of the Schrödinger equation is fundamentally wrong (as other aspects of how we teach QM are), but that it’s incomplete. And sometimes people get brief introductions to things like the Dirac equation or the Klein-Gordon equation, and come away with the impression that they are somehow relativistic replacements for the Schrödinger equation, which they certainly are not. Dirac et al. may have originally wondered whether they were, but these days we certainly know better.

As I remarked in my post about emergent space, we human beings tend to do quantum mechanics by starting with some classical model, and then “quantizing” it. Nature doesn’t work that way, but we’re not as smart as Nature is. By a “classical model” we mean something that obeys the basic Newtonian paradigm: there is some kind of generalized “position” variable, and also a corresponding “momentum” variable (how fast the position variable is changing), which together obey some deterministic equations of motion that can be solved once we are given initial data. Those equations can be derived from a function called the Hamiltonian, which is basically the energy of the system as a function of positions and momenta; the results are Hamilton’s equations, which are essentially a slick version of Newton’s original {\bf F} = m{\bf a}.

There are various ways of taking such a setup and “quantizing” it, but one way is to take the position variable and consider all possible (normalized, complex-valued) functions of that variable. So instead of, for example, a single position coordinate x and its momentum p, quantum mechanics deals with wave functions ψ(x). That’s the thing that you square to get the probability of observing the system to be at the position x. (We can also transform the wave function to “momentum space,” and calculate the probabilities of observing the system to be at momentum p.) Just as positions and momenta obey Hamilton’s equations, the wave function obeys the Schrödinger equation,

\hat{H}|\psi\rangle = i\partial_t |\psi\rangle.

Indeed, the \hat{H} that appears in the Schrödinger equation is just the quantum version of the Hamiltonian.

The problem is that, when we are first taught about the Schrödinger equation, it is usually in the context of a specific, very simple model: a single non-relativistic particle moving in a potential. In other words, we choose a particular kind of wave function, and a particular Hamiltonian. The corresponding version of the Schrödinger equation is

\displaystyle{\left[-\frac{1}{\mu^2}\frac{\partial^2}{\partial x^2} + V(x)\right]|\psi\rangle = i\partial_t |\psi\rangle}.

If you don’t dig much deeper into the essence of quantum mechanics, you could come away with the impression that this is “the” Schrödinger equation, rather than just “the non-relativistic Schrödinger equation for a single particle.” Which would be a shame.

What happens if we go beyond the world of non-relativistic quantum mechanics? Is the poor little Schrödinger equation still up to the task? Sure! All you need is the right set of wave functions and the right Hamiltonian. Every quantum system obeys a version of the Schrödinger equation; it’s completely general. In particular, there’s no problem talking about relativistic systems or field theories — just don’t use the non-relativistic version of the equation, obviously.

What about the Klein-Gordon and Dirac equations? These were, indeed, originally developed as “relativistic versions of the non-relativistic Schrödinger equation,” but that’s not what they ended up being useful for. (The story is told that Schrödinger himself invented the Klein-Gordon equation even before his non-relativistic version, but discarded it because it didn’t do the job for describing the hydrogen atom. As my old professor Sidney Coleman put it, “Schrödinger was no dummy. He knew about relativity.”)

The Klein-Gordon and Dirac equations are actually not quantum at all — they are classical field equations, just like Maxwell’s equations are for electromagnetism and Einstein’s equation is for the metric tensor of gravity. They aren’t usually taught that way, in part because (unlike E&M and gravity) there aren’t any macroscopic classical fields in Nature that obey those equations. The KG equation governs relativistic scalar fields like the Higgs boson, while the Dirac equation governs spinor fields (spin-1/2 fermions) like the electron and neutrinos and quarks. In Nature, spinor fields are a little subtle, because they are anticommuting Grassmann variables rather than ordinary functions. But make no mistake; the Dirac equation fits perfectly comfortably into the standard Newtonian physical paradigm.

For fields like this, the role of “position” that for a single particle was played by the variable x is now played by an entire configuration of the field throughout space. For a scalar Klein-Gordon field, for example, that might be the values of the field φ(x) at every spatial location x. But otherwise the same story goes through as before. We construct a wave function by attaching a complex number to every possible value of the position variable; to emphasize that it’s a function of functions, we sometimes call it a “wave functional” and write it as a capital letter,


The absolute-value-squared of this wave functional tells you the probability that you will observe the field to have the value φ(x) at each point x in space. The functional obeys — you guessed it — a version of the Schrödinger equation, with the Hamiltonian being that of a relativistic scalar field. There are likewise versions of the Schrödinger equation for the electromagnetic field, for Dirac fields, for the whole Core Theory, and what have you.

So the Schrödinger equation is not simply a relic of the early days of quantum mechanics, when we didn’t know how to deal with much more than non-relativistic particles orbiting atomic nuclei. It is the foundational equation of quantum dynamics, and applies to every quantum system there is. (There are equivalent ways of doing quantum mechanics, of course, like the Heisenberg picture and the path-integral formulation, but they’re all basically equivalent.) You tell me what the quantum state of your system is, and what is its Hamiltonian, and I will plug into the Schrödinger equation to see how that state will evolve with time. And as far as we know, quantum mechanics is how the universe works. Which makes the Schrödinger equation arguably the most important equation in all of physics.

While we’re at it, people complained that the cosmological constant Λ didn’t appear in Einstein’s equation (6). Of course it does — it’s part of the energy-momentum tensor on the right-hand side. Again, Einstein didn’t necessarily think of it that way, but these days we know better. The whole thing that is great about physics is that we keep learning things; we don’t need to remain stuck with the first ideas that were handed down by the great minds of the past.

Posted in Science | 47 Comments

Space Emerging from Quantum Mechanics

The other day I was amused to find a quote from Einstein, in 1936, about how hard it would be to quantize gravity: “like an attempt to breathe in empty space.” Eight decades later, I think we can still agree that it’s hard.

So here is a possibility worth considering: rather than quantizing gravity, maybe we should try to gravitize quantum mechanics. Or, more accurately but less evocatively, “find gravity inside quantum mechanics.” Rather than starting with some essentially classical view of gravity and “quantizing” it, we might imagine starting with a quantum view of reality from the start, and find the ordinary three-dimensional space in which we live somehow emerging from quantum information. That’s the project that ChunJun (Charles) Cao, Spyridon (Spiros) Michalakis, and I take a few tentative steps toward in a new paper.

We human beings, even those who have been studying quantum mechanics for a long time, still think in terms of a classical concepts. Positions, momenta, particles, fields, space itself. Quantum mechanics tells a different story. The quantum state of the universe is not a collection of things distributed through space, but something called a wave function. The wave function gives us a way of calculating the outcomes of measurements: whenever we measure an observable quantity like the position or momentum or spin of a particle, the wave function has a value for every possible outcome, and the probability of obtaining that outcome is given by the wave function squared. Indeed, that’s typically how we construct wave functions in practice. Start with some classical-sounding notion like “the position of a particle” or “the amplitude of a field,” and to each possible value we attach a complex number. That complex number, squared, gives us the probability of observing the system with that observed value.

Mathematically, wave functions are elements of a mathematical structure called Hilbert space. That means they are vectors — we can add quantum states together (the origin of superpositions in quantum mechanics) and calculate the angle (“dot product”) between them. (We’re skipping over some technicalities here, especially regarding complex numbers — see e.g. The Theoretical Minimum for more.) The word “space” in “Hilbert space” doesn’t mean the good old three-dimensional space we walk through every day, or even the four-dimensional spacetime of relativity. It’s just math-speak for “a collection of things,” in this case “possible quantum states of the universe.”

Hilbert space is quite an abstract thing, which can seem at times pretty removed from the tangible phenomena of our everyday lives. This leads some people to wonder whether we need to supplement ordinary quantum mechanics by additional new variables, or alternatively to imagine that wave functions reflect our knowledge of the world, rather than being representations of reality. For purposes of this post I’ll take the straightforward view that quantum mechanics says that the real world is best described by a wave function, an element of Hilbert space, evolving through time. (Of course time could be emergent too … something for another day.)

Here’s the thing: we can construct a Hilbert space by starting with a classical idea like “all possible positions of a particle” and attaching a complex number to each value, obtaining a wave function. All the conceivable wave functions of that form constitute the Hilbert space we’re interested in. But we don’t have to do it that way. As Einstein might have said, God doesn’t do it that way. Once we make wave functions by quantizing some classical system, we have states that live in Hilbert space. At this point it essentially doesn’t matter where we came from; now we’re in Hilbert space and we’ve left our classical starting point behind. Indeed, it’s well-known that very different classical theories lead to the same theory when we quantize them, and likewise some quantum theories don’t have classical predecessors at all.

The real world simply is quantum-mechanical from the start; it’s not a quantization of some classical system. The universe is described by an element of Hilbert space. All of our usual classical notions should be derived from that, not the other way around. Even space itself. We think of the space through which we move as one of the most basic and irreducible constituents of the real world, but it might be better thought of as an approximate notion that emerges at large distances and low energies. Continue reading

Posted in arxiv, Science | 70 Comments

Father of the Big Bang

Georges Lemaître died fifty years ago today, on 20 June 1966. If anyone deserves the title “Father of the Big Bang,” it would be him. Both because he investigated and popularized the Big Bang model, and because he was an actual Father, in the sense of being a Roman Catholic priest. (Which presumably excludes him from being an actual small-f father, but okay.)

John Farrell, author of a biography of Lemaître, has put together a nice video commemoration: “The Greatest Scientist You’ve Never Heard Of.” I of course have heard of him, but I agree that Lemaître isn’t as famous as he deserves.

The Greatest Scientist You've Never Heard Of from Farrellmedia on Vimeo.

Posted in Science | 150 Comments

The Big Picture: The Talk

I’m giving the last lecture on my mini-tour for The Big Picture tonight at the Natural History Museum here in Los Angeles. If you can’t make it, here’s a decent substitute: video of the talk I gave last week at Google headquarters in Mountain View.

I don’t think I’ve quite worked out all the kinks in this talk, but you get the general idea. My biggest regret was that I didn’t have the time to trace the flow of free energy from the Sun to photosynthesis to ATP to muscle contractions. It’s a great demonstration of how biological organisms are maintained through the creation of entropy.

Posted in Big Picture | 152 Comments

Give the People What They Want

And what they want, apparently, is 470-page treatises on the scientific and philosophical underpinnings of naturalism. To appear soon in the Newspaper of Record:


Happy also to see great science books like Lab Girl and Seven Brief Lessons on Physics make the NYT best-seller list. See? Science isn’t so scary at all.

Posted in Big Picture | 20 Comments

Big Picture Part Six: Caring

One of a series of quick posts on the six sections of my book The Big PictureCosmos, Understanding, Essence, Complexity, Thinking, Caring.

Chapters in Part Six, Caring:

  • 45. Three Billion Heartbeats
  • 46. What Is and What Ought to Be
  • 47. Rules and Consequences
  • 48. Constructing Goodness
  • 49. Listening to the World
  • 50. Existential Therapy

In this final section of the book, we take a step back to look at the journey we’ve taken, and ask what it implies for how we should think about our lives. I intentionally kept it short, because I don’t think poetic naturalism has many prescriptive advice to give along these lines. Resisting the temptation to give out a list of “Ten Naturalist Commandments,” I instead offer a list of “Ten Considerations,” things we can keep in mind while we decide for ourselves how we want to live.

A good poetic naturalist should resist the temptation to hand out commandments. “Give someone a fish,” the saying goes, “and you feed them for a day. Teach them to fish, and you feed them for a lifetime.” When it comes to how to lead our lives, poetic naturalism has no fish to give us. It doesn’t even really teach us how to fish. It’s more like poetic naturalism helps us figure out that there are things called “fish,” and perhaps investigate the various possible ways to go about catching them, if that were something we were inclined to do. It’s up to us what strategy we want to take, and what to do with our fish once we’ve caught them.

There are nevertheless some things worth saying, because there are a lot of untrue beliefs to which we all tend to cling from time to time. Many (most?) naturalists have trouble letting go of the existence of objective moral truths, even if they claim to accept the idea that the natural world is all that exists. But you can’t derive ought from is, so an honest naturalist will admit that our ethical principles are constructed rather than derived from nature. (In particular, I borrow the idea of “Humean constructivism” from philosopher Sharon Street.) Fortunately, we’re not blank slates, or computers happily idling away; we have aspirations, desires, preferences, and cares. More than enough raw material to construct workable notions of right and wrong, no less valuable for being ultimately subjective.

Of course there are also incorrect beliefs on the religious or non-naturalist side of the ledger, from the existence of divinely-approved ways of being to the promise of judgment and eternal reward for good behavior. Naturalists accept that life is going to come to an end — this life is not a dress rehearsal for something greater, it’s the only performance we get to give. The average person can expect a lifespan of about three billion heartbeats. That’s a goodly number, but far from limitless. We should make the most of each of our heartbeats.


The finitude of life doesn’t imply that it’s meaningless, any more than obeying the laws of physics implies that we can’t find purpose and joy within the natural world. The absence of a God to tell us why we’re here and hand down rules about what is and is not okay doesn’t leave us adrift — it puts the responsibility for constructing meaningful lives back where it always was, in our own hands.

Here’s a story one could imagine telling about the nature of the world. The universe is a miracle. It was created by God as a unique act of love. The splendor of the cosmos, spanning billions of years and countless stars, culminated in the appearance of human beings here on Earth — conscious, aware creatures, unions of soul and body, capable of appreciating and returning God’s love. Our mortal lives are part of a larger span of existence, in which we will continue to participate after our deaths.

It’s an attractive story. You can see why someone would believe it, and work to reconcile it with what science has taught us about the nature of reality. But the evidence points elsewhere.

Here’s a different story. The universe is not a miracle. It simply is, unguided and unsustained, manifesting the patterns of nature with scrupulous regularity. Over billions of years it has evolved naturally, from a state of low entropy toward increasing complexity, and it will eventually wind down to a featureless equilibrium condition. We are the miracle, we human beings. Not a break-the-laws-of-physics kind of miracle; a miracle in that it is wondrous and amazing how such complex, aware, creative, caring creatures could have arisen in perfect accordance with those laws. Our lives are finite, unpredictable, and immeasurably precious. Our emergence has brought meaning and mattering into the world.

That’s a pretty darn good story, too. Demanding in its own way, it may not give us everything we want, but it fits comfortably with everything science has taught us about nature. It bequeaths to us the responsibility and opportunity to make life into what we would have it be.

I do hope people enjoy the book. As I said earlier, I don’t presume to be offering many final answers here. I do think that the basic precepts of naturalism provide a framework for thinking about the world that, given our current state of knowledge, is overwhelmingly likely to be true. But the hard work of understanding the details of how that world works, and how we should shape our lives within it, is something we humans as a species have really only just begun to tackle in a serious way. May our journey of discovery be enlivened by frequent surprises!

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Big Picture Part Five: Thinking

One of a series of quick posts on the six sections of my book The Big PictureCosmos, Understanding, Essence, Complexity, Thinking, Caring.

Chapters in Part Five, Thinking:

  • 37. Crawling Into Consciousness
  • 38. The Babbling Brain
  • 39. What Thinks?
  • 40. The Hard Problem
  • 41. Zombies and Stories
  • 42. Are Photons Conscious?
  • 43. What Acts on What?
  • 44. Freedom to Choose

Even many people who willingly describe themselves as naturalists — who agree that there is only the natural world, obeying laws of physics — are brought up short by the nature of consciousness, or the mind-body problem. David Chalmers famously distinguished between the “Easy Problems” of consciousness, which include functional and operational questions like “How does seeing an object relate to our mental image of that object?”, and the “Hard Problem.” The Hard Problem is the nature of qualia, the subjective experiences associated with conscious events. “Seeing red” is part of the Easy Problem, “experiencing the redness of red” is part of the Hard Problem. No matter how well we might someday understand the connectivity of neurons or the laws of physics governing the particles and forces of which our brains are made, how can collections of such cells or particles ever be said to have an experience of “what it is like” to feel something?

These questions have been debated to death, and I don’t have anything especially novel to contribute to discussions of how the brain works. What I can do is suggest that (1) the emergence of concepts like “thinking” and “experiencing” and “consciousness” as useful ways of talking about macroscopic collections of matter should be no more surprising than the emergence of concepts like “temperature” and “pressure”; and (2) our understanding of those underlying laws of physics is so incredibly solid and well-established that there should be an enormous presumption against modifying them in some important way just to account for a phenomenon (consciousness) which is admittedly one of the most subtle and complex things we’ve ever encountered in the world.

My suspicion is that the Hard Problem won’t be “solved,” it will just gradually fade away as we understand more and more about how the brain actually does work. I love this image of the magnetic fields generated in my brain as neurons squirt out charged particles, evidence of thoughts careening around my gray matter. (Taken by an MEG machine in David Poeppel’s lab at NYU.) It’s not evidence of anything surprising — not even the most devoted mind-body dualist is reluctant to admit that things happen in the brain while you are thinking — but it’s a vivid illustration of how closely our mental processes are associated with the particles and forces of elementary physics.


The divide between those who doubt that physical concepts can account for subjective experience and those who are think it can is difficult to bridge precisely because of the word “subjective” — there are no external, measurable quantities we can point to that might help resolve the issue. In the book I highlight this gap by imagining a dialogue between someone who believes in the existence of distinct mental properties (M) and a poetic naturalist (P) who thinks that such properties are a way of talking about physical reality:

M: I grant you that, when I am feeling some particular sensation, it is inevitably accompanied by some particular thing happening in my brain — a “neural correlate of consciousness.” What I deny is that one of my subjective experiences simply is such an occurrence in my brain. There’s more to it than that. I also have a feeling of what it is like to have that experience.

P: What I’m suggesting is that the statement “I have a feeling…” is simply a way of talking about those signals appearing in your brain. There is one way of talking that speaks a vocabulary of neurons and synapses and so forth, and another way that speaks of people and their experiences. And there is a map between these ways: when the neurons do a certain thing, the person feels a certain way. And that’s all there is.

M: Except that it’s manifestly not all there is! Because if it were, I wouldn’t have any conscious experiences at all. Atoms don’t have experiences. You can give a functional explanation of what’s going on, which will correctly account for how I actually behave, but such an explanation will always leave out the subjective aspect.

P: Why? I’m not “leaving out” the subjective aspect, I’m suggesting that all of this talk of our inner experiences is a very useful way of bundling up the collective behavior of a complex collection of atoms. Individual atoms don’t have experiences, but macroscopic agglomerations of them might very well, without invoking any additional ingredients.

M: No they won’t. No matter how many non-feeling atoms you pile together, they will never start having experiences.

P: Yes they will.

M: No they won’t.

P: Yes they will.

I imagine that close analogues of this conversation have happened countless times, and are likely to continue for a while into the future.

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