Life Is the Flame of a Candle

Emperor Has No Clothes Award Last October I was privileged to be awarded the Emperor Has No Clothes award from the Freedom From Religion Foundation. The physical trophy consists of the dashing statuette here on the right, presumably the titular Emperor. It’s made by the same company that makes the Academy Award trophies. (Whenever I run into Meryl Streep, she’s just won’t shut up about how her Oscars are produced by the same company that does the Emperor’s New Clothes award.)

Part of the award-winning is the presentation of a short speech, and I wasn’t sure what to talk about. There are only so many things I have to say, but it’s boring to talk about the same stuff over and over again. More importantly, I have no real interest in giving religion-bashing talks; I care a lot more about doing the hard and constructive work of exploring the consequences of naturalism.

So I decided on a cheerful topic: Death and Physics. I talked about modern science gives us very good reasons to believe (not a proof, never a proof) that there is no such thing as an afterlife. Life is a process, not a substance, and it’s a process that begins, proceeds along for a while, and comes to an end. Certainly something I’ve said before, e.g. in my article on Physics and the Immortality of the Soul, and in the recent Afterlife Debate, but I added a bit more here about entropy, complexity, and what we mean by the word “life.”

If you’re in a reflective mood, here it is. I begin at around 3:50. One of the points I tried to make is that the finitude of life has its upside. Every moment is precious, and what we should value is what is around us right now — because that’s all there is. It’s a scary but exhilarating view of the world.

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79 Responses to Life Is the Flame of a Candle

  1. AJamesS says:

    One thing I’d like to suggest is that one could consider the notion of existing after death from a scientific view point. Not in the sense of continued consciousness, but simply in the sense that the atoms and molecules that make up out body will return to the earth and become part of other organisms … . Noah and the Whale did a very touching song about just that topic called “Death by Numbers”, here it is!:

  2. Matthew Rapaport says:

    The “evidence” (not proof) for God isn’t in physics it’s in consciousness. The only possible link between the physical and what “might be” a supra-physical reality goes through consciousness which cannot be mapped entirely to physics (see Lowe vs. Chalmers I can give you the references should you be interested). There is no evidence of any afterlife, only an inference. That is, if there is a God, then there must be an afterlife, and I am way over-simplifying here, see my book!

    What I do not understand about this community (and I’ve read a lot of physics and cosmology over the last few years) is why it is mostly so close minded (you Dr. Carroll are among the more “open minded” of this community) about a possible ontology that is not in any way or by any means precluded by causal closure in physics (and I included stochastic closure of QM in this) and for which there is, apparently, “some evidence” — NOT PROOF — in consciousness? It just doesn’t make any sense. I can understand ignoring what cannot be quantified under physics, but not denying even its possible existence!

  3. Scott Bergquist says:

    Such fine, fine, cogent speech. Great humor, great insight…my only wild, impossible wish would be for Sean Carroll to be elected POTUS….a bad situation for him, but such a huge uplift for 310+ million Americans (and the world).

  4. Scott Bergquist says:

    At Matthew Rapaport: Your ontological argument is basically saying that, because higher, complex consciousness cannot be mapped and totally explained, it therefore might contain something that might lead to a supernatural result. But our consciousness, beyond that of an ant (which is conscious enough to avoid excess heat (fire) or fall off an edge) is nothing that cannot exist without atoms, and we know how atoms work (as Sean Carroll so eloquently explained). Your idea is similar to the idea that an ice sculpture of, say, a pyramid…that when that pyramid melts, the intrinsic, distinct nature of that one pyramid, goes somewhere outside our ability to find it…magically.

    There is no reason to pursue your idea. Physics precludes it.

  5. Lord says:

    I would have gone with time is an illusion so there is no after or there is an after but it isn’t really after.

  6. Robert cattle says:

    King of science,Midas by name, who dresses in the clothes of time and all held together with gravity.

    I await the ” time” that Midas realises that he should look in the mirror and see what’s missing


  7. uzi almagor says:

    If all the law of physics of the word is F (World) an you are x so if you begin in one point say 1/1/2015 on 01:00:00…… and the F (World) on you = x so it look like
    F (World, x, 01:00:00….) = X1 AND BRING YOU TO 1/1/2015 on 01:00:00:1
    And then F (World, x1, 01:00:00:1) = x2 and bring you to 1/1/2015 on 01:00:00:2
    And so on …..
    So who are you Sean Carroll ? What is the difference from electron? You cant think, you cant decide you are a result of Flow of atoms no more no less Flow of atoms in accordance with the F (World).
    You cant be physics you can not do research Because in order to decide you need to rise above the law of the world F (World) but then it contradicts the law world= F (World).
    You feel that you decide, but its part of the F (World). There is no room for thinking in case laws control all. So in that case it seems more useful to think there is a God because If a world dominated by laws that thought is built into the rules so you can only make a profit and not lose because if the world in not only physics opposite you can only win.
    By the way in world of physics the Laplace’s demon can not exist. In the world of laws really are incapable of anything to think and decide.

  8. David Rutten says:

    Great talk, weird questions. Did you ever find out what the typo was supposed to be?

  9. Sean Carroll says:

    I think the comment about a typo was just a joke. (But you never know.)

  10. Hans Rinderknecht says:

    @Matthew Rapaport: This is an interesting discussion I have had with several of my friends recently (specifically, those who believe in a “supra-physical” conscious experience, in your words), and I would be interested in what you have to say about it. You discuss “a possible ontology that is not … precluded by causal closure in physics … and for which there is, apparently, “some evidence” … in consciousness.” (I imagine you are referring either to an argument about the physical insolubility of qualia, or perhaps regarding computability, but lets set that aside for the moment.)

    If someone makes the claim that there is a fundamentally “non-physical” aspect to consciousness, a scientist wants to ask “what are the rules that govern that aspect”? If there are rules, then those rules are a type of physics, and we can include them in our concept of the universe (this has happened before – for example, the idea of the electromagnetic field is pretty bizarre and was definitely unexpected, but few people contest it now). But then, in what sense is consciousness supra-natural*? The alternative, that consciousness or some aspect of consciousness has no rules (i.e. is fundamentally incomprehensible) can’t be ruled out except by disproving it. But it also feels conceptually wrong because people’s behavior is for the most part quite predictable.

    If you would argue that there is no logic to consciousness, how does that fit with the traditional understanding of the divine and with our experience of conscious beings? If you would argue that there is a logic to consciousness, then where is the boundary between “natural” and “supra-natural”? Or am I missing the point?

    *This is related to the hierarchy problem – the idea that “more is different” [see P.W. Anderson, Science vol 177, pg 393 (1972)], so the fact that for example chemistry is shown to arise from quantum mechanics doesn’t mean that chemistry doesn’t have it’s own logic. You could claim that consciousness both 1. has rules and 2. is intrinsically disconnected from physical reality, but based on the hierarchical connections that appear between every other field of study that seems like a very bold claim, which would require very extensive and conclusive evidence. The evidence that comes to mind (e.g. brain trauma and its effect on conscious experience and behavior) seems to point the other way, toward a conscious experience that arises out of brain activity.

  11. Dan says:

    Great presentation, very interesting, very entertaining and just enough for someone like me. I’m a theoretical something; I like to think about things, too, but I’m certainly not a physicist. A half hour of interesting ideas is just enough to stimulate my atoms. Congrats on the award!

  12. uzi almagor says:

    David Rutten if you say weird questions to what i say ( i am not so good in english Thank God for Google Translate (joke) ) .
    Think carefully and understand the questions and then you will Understand that this questions are essence of human existence if we are only physics so we are nothing or we are abouve physics so there is a meaning to our existence.

  13. Guest 1234 says:

    Great talk. Maybe do a post on the equation?

    It’s possible consciousness lasts through some of the decay of the brain of a dead person.

  14. Sandra wilde says:

    I must confess that I find many of these comments to be goofy wishful thinking wrapped up in bombastic language. Dr. Carroll, hearing you at TAM a few years ago helped me – indeed required me – to solidify my already-existing belief that there’s no afterlife. Oddly, I’m still a Catholic, but without any supernatural aspects to it.

  15. Matthew Rapaport says:

    Scott, you are right, we “know how atoms work” and we learn that they cannot, at least not all by themselves, and no matter how complex their relationship, convert into something non-material, and consciousness cannot be entirely a material thing. As an aside, to assert, even by implication, that “ant consciousness” is of qualitatively the same sort as human consciousness is a bit of a stretch don’t you think? We don’t really know that there even is “something that it is like” to be an ant. Even a robot can avoid a fire these days. But you don’t have to go that far. We are pretty sure (for good reason) that there is something that it is like to be say a dog or a monkey. But we can easily find things humans do that even monkeys do not. Monkeys do not assert propositions.

    I appreciate a real discussion so long as no one gets mad. Hans, you covered the most options in detail so I’ll address each of your paragraphs with a sentence or two.

    First I am not being specific about which facets of consciousness is impacted, and in the end, our subjective selves are experienced as a unified whole (that is in first person) so it ends up being all of it. I recommend Lowe “There Are No Easy Problems of Consciousness” (2008) and he was ultimately a materialist. Ultimately qualia and free will prove to be the particularly difficult nuts to crack, but no aspect of our phenomenal arena is without its “interaction” with the rest. There isn’t space here to consider this in more detail.

    Rules? Yes there are rules, there are formalisms to the unity that is the subject. But these rules are not expressible in the physical, that is in equations governing (or merely describing) the behavior of matter-energy. So the “rules” aren’t physical, and thanks to “free will” (do we want to open up that can of worms?) they are “shaping rules” or “limiting rules”. They certainly affect probabilities (that is why behavior is predictable) but they are not ontologically deterministic (even stochastically) the way physics is. Consciousness is not (unless the underlying brain is defective in some way) chaotic, but this is not the space I suspect to get into this more deeply.

    The “hierarchy problem” is not at all the issue. In fact things (that is reality) can be both-and. Consciousness is partly dependent on physics, and possibly partly (that is what is at issue here) it is not. So if you disrupt a brain you certainly destroy *that* consciousness. None of this is related to the “after life” issue I first brought up. Destroyed is destroyed in this case, but that is because besides consciousness humans in particular have another distinguishable identity, their *personality* but again, not the place and time.

    The fundamental problem is the “interaction problem” and that is what much of the mystery comes down to. I do not claim that consciousness is not dependent on functioning brains (and ultimately atoms), but it seems to be something (in Chalmer’s words) “added to it”. If you count yourself among those physicists and philosophers who hold that consciousness is indeed “something more” than merely physical dynamics even if it emerges (originates in time) from nothing more than physical dynamics, then you too have an “interaction problem” from the other direction. There is no “evidence”, ironically except in consciousness, that physics can become conscious!

    Only full blooded materialists do not come up against the interaction problem, but theirs is every other problem related to the non-physical character of first person consciousness. Everybody (materialists and epiphenomenalists alike) is right in that consciousness of the human sort is dependent on brains and therefore atoms. The issue is whether or not there could be both causal closure in the physical AND interaction between the physical and “whatever else it is that exists to make this happen” is if something (or someone) whose causal powers transcended both the physical and the mental and arranged for that very interaction

    Now as it turns out, like the ontological uncertainty of QM, the “trick” to this interaction is one of those things that human consciousness is precluded from describing because it is itself a result of “the trick”

    So with apologies to Dr. Carroll for hijacking discussion of his award, and for which I offer due congratulations for I and God both happen to have a sense of humor and it is always good to have friends and peers who enjoy your work. Perhaps there is a better forum to continue this discussion

    I leave with one last thought returning to the central point of my original post on this, now expanded a bit by what is above. The totality of our subjective experience, including our comprehension of a causally closed physics, is consistent with there BEING an interaction and therefore the possibility of there being a God. To put this is another way, what we experience (and I speak here of the phenomenology of consciousness, our subjective lives including both sensory and values detection and their dependency on physics) is what we expect to experience IF there is an interaction between the physical and something else that would (of necessity in the end) be the source of both.

    If there is a better place to discuss further, let me know. Above I have said “not the right place or time” more than once. My book (hey it’s only a $4 kindle book) does get into all of the above and more in considerably more detail.

    Matthew Rapaport

  16. Steven B. Trisel says:

    Sean -I absolutely enjoyed your speech and found it wonderfully illuminating. I especially liked the idea of the universe itself having a life history, from birth to eventual death, in a similar way that every living thing is predictably bound to experience. This is an expansion of a thought I’ve shared with my closest friends that each night, when we go to sleep, we experience a kind of death between the time we fall asleep and start dreaming, i.e., a period where we lose conscious awareness and the mind is empty of any content. This is how I prefer to think about death and, since it will be devoid of sensations of any kind, there is nothing to fear. Death is also a “natural” consequence of existence, so rather than worry about it or create make-believe stories that seek to ameliorate the grief-response, we can simply consider that we experience a form of death every day/night. In any event, your writings and lectures have been and continue to be a source of inspiration and joy. Thank you for your outstanding work-to-date!

  17. uzi almagor says:

    Hi Matthew Rapaport
    “We know how atoms work” and we learn that they cannot, at least not all by themselves, and no matter how complex their relationship, convert into something non-material, and consciousness cannot be entirely a material thing”
    This approach will get you to dead end. I think you need to understand what does an understanding of the world that only physical laws are in. Understand that this brings us to an internal contradiction. And then we left only with the Understanding that God only possible hypothesis. See what I post above

  18. Scott Bergquist says:

    At Matthew Rapaport: Consciousness is a material thing. Just as electricity is a “material thing” but has no weight, nor can be seen inside wires. The fact that humans, and many other animals, have been repeatedly shown to lose consciousness by means of chemicals (drugs) means it is a physical thing. The problem with arguments such as yours is that they are oblivious to the chemistry of the brain, or any biochemistry. One has to be untouched by the complexity of biochemistry to reach the conclusions you do. I subscribe to the AAAS journal Science and almost all the biochemistry papers contained therein are beyond my ability to explain to someone else, much less make sense for myself.

    Can you explain the following biochemical terms?
    AB3 variant hydrolyzed pNPA
    ampicillin hydrolysis activity
    monomeric redox protein
    Zn-coordinated OH2/OH- ligand
    p-Nitrophenyl acetate
    …???… this is about (truly) 1% of the terms, in one article published in Science. Unless you are conversant with all the thousands of proteins within our brains, not to mentions the thousands of enzymes, how is it that you can simply sit in an armchair, and declare consciousness is a product of something unfound and unmeasurable? It is a problem of large, very large numbers. What are the characteristics of a trillion synapses operating? A trillion!!! It is unfathomable.

    Now try 80 trillion, the number in our brains.

    What are we individual humans, except defined by our memory we hold? Unless you have examined the tens of thousands (and, I am not exaggerating) scientific papers written about the biochemistry of memory, and how the seven or eight types of memory (e.g. short term, long term..) are formed chemically in the brain, all propositions of a non-physical memory (and thus, consciousness with an ability to utilize the past, and synthesize possible futures) are simply fantasies.


  19. uzi almagor says:

    Complex does not prove anything
    The only thing it proves that the f(world ) is Complex.
    f (world ) = all the The laws of physics

  20. Matthew Rapaport says:

    Come on Scott.. Electricity is physical, it is made from electrons and they have weight. Besides you seem to have skipped over all of my attempt to agree that functioning consciousness is dependent on brains and therefore atoms. As for all those thousands of papers, come on! None of them address the “what it is to be like” aspect of consciousness, and no one can be a specialist in everything. If the physiologists had “solved the problem” there wouldn’t be any debate.

    Let me try and state the core of this more concisely, and again, my apologies to Dr. Carroll. Now Dr. Carroll has made it clear that what physicists know does not PROVE that God does not exist. Now most physicists will swallow this pill but they fail to appreciate its consequences. If there is no proof that God doesn’t exist, that must mean that God is possible. Now what do physicists do with possibilities when they come upon them (for example the Everett interpretation of QM)? They assume them provisionally and ask “what can we expect to observe?” In this case, and this is the crux of it all, what we could “expect” to observe is consciousness, and more particularly a certain level of consciousness that qualifies us as observers.

    So rejecting the God hypothesis amounts to rejecting a plausible explanation for our very experience. Now mind you I said plausible, not “only one possible”. But few physicists (or philosophers) I know of (I think Davies made this point but his argument concerned physical structure in the universe) are willing to emerge from their dogmatism long enough to at least appreciate the logic of that plausibility.

  21. uzi almagor says:

    Matthew Rapaport
    If God exists you cant prove the existence of God. Because it is above the laws of physics.
    God by definition is infinite and you cant test or observe infinite .GOD Is over time and space .that why I say you will go by this approach to dead end.
    I think the only think you can prove that God only possible hypothesis.
    And the Statement that only physical laws is in this Universe brings us to an internal contradiction See my first post above

  22. Joan Hendricks says:

    Dr. Carrol, as a person who has read your “The Particle at the End of the Universe” and as a member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, I was very happy to see you get “The Emperor Has No Clothes” Award. Your talk at the convention was excellent and death as the end of life is something everyone should be willing to face up to. I’m in no way a scientist, but having been noticing lately that there seems to be a lot going on in science and that things significant in physics are showing to be also very significant in biology and chemistry.

    The one thing I wish I had done was to have gone to the FFRF convention in October and hopefully get to meet you and shake your hand and thank you for being willing to talk and debate some of these topics.

  23. Hans Rinderknecht says:

    To start with – Sean: congratulations, and that was a truly enjoyable and meditative talk! I found the distinction between entropy and complexity to be very informative, and very well illustrated. Thanks again for your clear insight.

    Matthew, I would enjoy a more thorough conversation with you (as I am interested in how consciousness works, and have not found the arguments about why a unified conscious experience is somehow necessarily aphysical to be satisfying), but as you point out, this may not be the place. I suppose my main concern about your program is that proposing God as an explanation of consciousness seems to violate Occam’s razor. For God to be a plausible explanation of consciousness, there would have to be something fundamental about the experience of consciousness that can’t be explained by just things within the universe, but that CAN be explained by positing God outside the universe. Attempts to demonstrate this seem to hinge on the unphysicality of the unified conscious experience. I’m afraid I don’t understand why qualia are somehow necessarily aphysical: the idea that there are apparently unified conscious experiences seems no more mysterious to me than the idea that there are apparently unified biological organisms. In both cases, how they work is a fruitful area of research, but the fact that they exist doesn’t strike me as more or less surprising that the fact that anything complex exists. Is there a straightforward description of the problem with qualia?

  24. Torbjörn Larsson says:

    Very interesting! I have seen a need for Schroedinger’s book to go on my reading list, and this tips the balance.

    His definition is broadly correct of course. The emerging thermodynamics of replicators, such as it is (the very same Russell et al), is enough to show that life is a non-equilibrium thermodynamic (NET) process. E.g. replication has to be irreversible in order that dissolution does not balance production of new replicators. That is interesting because many metabolic chains are reversible, near equilibrium, push-pull producers, but an entire organism can’t be.

    Possibly there also need to be a realization of the potentially exponential growth in order for evolution to kick in, so even more distance to equilibrium. But fixation of alleles can also happen in evolutionary bottlenecks where numbers of individuals are few and nearly constant.

    Be as it may, I used to espouse Russell’s view as espoused in the video, that of life as a means for a cooling planet to go on producing methane out of the initial carbon dioxide atmosphere. However Russell has evolved his ideas in order for him to fit it with the type of geophysical environment that he explores for emergence of life (alkaline hydrothermal vents).

    The free energy (so entropy) differences that were available is ~2 eV, matching the photosynthesis redox potentials. But he consider that it isn’t enough but that there exist metabolic engines in autotroph cells that drive carbon fixation. The central engine would be electron bifurcating metal atoms that push electrons to high enough potentials by at the same time throw others to lower potentials. A good recent summary of his new results and ideas is “The Drive to Life on Wet and Icy Worlds”, Russell et al, Astrobiology.

    On another tack, the Q&A had a discussion on how to communicate ideas. The science mentioned isn’t the only one that applies, and Jason Rosenhouse has a good article on this:

    “…the wrong science … should be looking at the science of advertising. …

    “”Other psychologists do basic research on social marketing. Curtis Haugtvedt hopes social marketers in the field will use what he’s learned about persuasion as a result of his laboratory experiments on recycling. So far, he’s found that emotional appeals–like the famous ad showing an American Indian with a tear rolling down his face as he confronts pollution–work better than cognitive ones when it comes to persuading people to recycle. Emphasizing that “everyone else is doing it” also helps. (Emphasis Added)”

    And this:

    “Repetition is one way to increase visual fluency and hence appeal. The more people see something, the more they like it. “Advertisers intuitively know that exposing people repetitively to the same stimulus increases liking,” says Winkielman. “That’s one of the reasons they show the same ad over and over again.””

    [ ]

    To move people to recognize facts is possible, but would ironically mean to making them appealing. But the way to make them appealing is to emphasizing that “everyone else” recognizes them, and to never, ever let up.

  25. Torbjörn Larsson says:

    Re consciousness, the only theory that is complete (solves both the “weak” and “strong” problem of when respectively how) is biologically based. Of course it throws out redundant theological ideas of “dualism” and philosophical ideas of “qualia” to be replaced by physics:

    The theory is based on two very basic actions that all brains perform. The first is paying attention, which for a neuroscientist is a data-handling trick. So many signals come into the brain from outside and inside the body that only a minority of them can be processed at any one time. Attention is a complex process that allows us to focus on a few signals, process them deeply and then react to them. Second, all brains organize these processed signals in order to construct informational models of things in the world. Brains understand the world through models of objects, people and even the self.

    In Graziano’s attention schema theory, awareness is the brain’s simplified model of the complicated process of attention. When a person is aware of something such as an apple in front of them, it is because the brain has put together two models: the information describing the apple, and the self-descriptive information about how the brain is focusing its resources. Put those two specialized types of information together and the brain is equipped to introspect, conclude and report, “I am aware of the apple.”

    “Essentially all existing theories of consciousness have addressed only the easy problem. Graziano shows that the solution to the hard problem might be that the brain describes some of the information that it is actively processing as conscious because that is a useful description of its own process of attention, Schurger said.

    “Michael’s theory explains the connection between attention and consciousness in a very elegant and compelling way,” Schurger said.

    “His theory is the first theory that I know of to take both the easy and the hard problems head on,” he said. “That is a gaping hole in all other modern theories, and it is deftly plugged by Michael’s theory. Even if you think his theory is wrong, his theory reminds us that any theory that avoids the hard problem has almost certainly missed the mark, because a plausible solution — his theory — exists that does not appeal to magic or mysterious, as-yet-unexplained phenomena.””

    [ ]