The Big Picture

Once again I have not really been the world’s most conscientious blogger, have I? Sometimes other responsibilities have to take precedence — such as looming book deadlines. And I’m working on a new book, and that deadline is definitely looming!

Sean Carroll: The Big Picture

And here it is. The title is The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself. It’s scheduled to be published on May 17, 2016; you can pre-order it at Amazon and elsewhere right now.

An alternative subtitle was What Is, and What Matters. It’s a cheerfully grandiose (I’m supposed to say “ambitious”) attempt to connect our everyday lives to the underlying laws of nature. That’s a lot of ground to cover: I need to explain (what I take to be) the right way to think about the fundamental nature of reality, what the laws of physics actually are, sketch some cosmology and connect to the arrow of time, explore why there is something rather than nothing, show how interesting complex structures can arise in an undirected universe, talk about the meaning of consciousness and how it can be purely physical, and finally trying to understand meaning and morality in a universe devoid of transcendent purpose. I’m getting tired just thinking about it.

From another perspective, the book is an explication of, and argument for, naturalism — and in particular, a flavor I label Poetic Naturalism. The “Poetic” simply means that there are many ways of talking about the world, and any one that is both (1) useful, and (2) compatible with the underlying fundamental reality, deserves a place at the table. Some of those ways of talking will simply be emergent descriptions of physics and higher levels, but some will also be matters of judgment and meaning.

As of right now the book is organized into seven parts, each with several short chapters. All that is subject to change, of course. But this will give you the general idea.

* Part One: Being and Stories

How we think about the fundamental nature of reality. Poetic Naturalism: there is only one world, but there are many ways of talking about it. Suggestions of naturalism: the world moves by itself, time progresses by moments rather than toward a goal. What really exists.

* Part Two: Knowledge and Belief

Telling different stories about the same underlying truth. Acquiring and updating reliable beliefs. Knowledge of our actual world is never perfect. Constructing consistent planets of belief, guarding against our biases.

* Part Three: Time and Cosmos

The structure and development of our universe. Time’s arrow and cosmic history. The emergence of memories, causes, and reasons. Why is there a universe at all, and is it best explained by something outside itself?

* Part Four: Essence and Possibility

Drawing the boundary between known and unknown. The quantum nature of deep reality: observation, entanglement, uncertainty. Vibrating fields and the Core Theory underlying everyday life. What we can say with confidence about life and the soul.

* Part Five: Complexity and Evolution

Why complex structures naturally arise as the universe moves from order to disorder. Self-organization and incremental progress. The origin of life, and its physical purpose. The anthropic principle, environmental selection, and our role in the universe.

* Part Six: Thinking and Feeling

The mind, the brain, and the body. What consciousness is, and how it might have come to be. Contemplating other times and possible worlds. The emergence of inner experiences from non-conscious matter. How free will is compatible with physics.

* Part Seven: Caring and Mattering

Why we can’t derive ought from is, even if “is” is all there is. And why we nevertheless care about ourselves and others, and why that matters. Constructing meaning and morality in our universe. Confronting the finitude of life, deciding what stories we want to tell along the way.

Hope that whets the appetite a bit. Now back to work with me.

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59 Responses to The Big Picture

  1. Dan says:

    It’s about time someone (smart) brought all these ideas together into one book. I’m very much looking forward to reading it.

  2. Coel says:

    Sounds good. I’ll buy it!

  3. Noble says:

    I have enjoyed all of your work, books and Great Courses. I eagerly look forward to this book as well. I have taken up the study of physics as a hobby in my later years. I’m thinking that I may be a Physicist in my next life time on this planet. Looking forward to seeing you in Summerland.

  4. Ryan says:

    Already preordered. I cannot f-ing wait.

  5. Axl Rose says:

    The list price is 27.95?!? Why do you work with companies wanting to commit highway robbery? What’s your cut, Sean?

  6. Daniel Kerr says:

    I’ve enjoyed your books, it’ll be interesting to read something of yours that is much more explicitly philosophical.

  7. Nancy Tomich says:

    Sounds fascinating. I can’t wait to read it. Thanks for releasing it on my birthday. 🙂

  8. javier rodriguez de rivera says:

    Thanks a lot for the approach.I will read it in order to combine with my doctoral thesis about old greek philosophers ideas and modern Phisycs.
    The philosofical Being is proven by modern Physics after two centuries of negation of The Being .

  9. Ray Gunn says:

    … a 20-page book?

  10. Paul Pelosi says:

    I think we can derive ought from is, at least in a chosen sense. ‘Is’ is the evolved condition of the natural world and the evolved state of the human condition. Thus we know what evolution ‘wants’ in a sense. We ought, therefore, to grant evolution its ‘wishes’ and construct our moralities around them. Evolution ‘wants’ us to survive, and since the natural morality we all possess obviously had survival advantages our job is consciously to develop and improve on them. If you read Stephen Pinker’s ‘Angels of Our Better Nature’ it seems that we have been doing that progressively over centuries. I recognize this as a pretty thin argument, and obviously our ‘natural morality’ is a broad and roughshod brush, but it at least lends a fundamental objectivity underpinning the more developed and honed philosophies of morality and ethics of later eons.

    I look forward to reading Sean Carroll’s new book. I was wondering when he would get around to addressing the questions which consume the curiosities of the modern age. Have we got it all sorted out? Do we know all we need to know? Can the God question be put to bed once and for all?

  11. Paul Green says:

    Sounds great! I’d add a bit about how evolution likely creates beings with not merely a survival instinct, but also a conviction that their essential nature (e.g., “soul”) is (or should be) infinite and inviolable. Therein lies one explanation of why mortality seems so troubling to us, and perhaps an inspiration for many religious beliefs too.

  12. Bill Jones says:

    I’d like to hear more about how “Free Will” is compatible with physics or maybe you’ve previously discussed this concept.

  13. Melvin Ely says:

    Looking forward to the book and, further on down the road, to a Teaching Company companion course similar to the one you did for the Higgs.

  14. Skip says:

    I would love for this to be a great book. But please do not squander your reputation for communicating physics with a philosophically naïve treatment of the subtle questions surrounding the origins of meaning, purpose, and morality. You risk making the conclusions unnecessarily muddled. When seeking critical commentary on these ideas, please seek the input of respected philosophers who are likely to disagree with and challenge you. Your book will be better for it.

  15. chemicalscum says:

    “The emergence of inner experiences from non-conscious matter. How free will is compatible with physics.” –

    Take that Jerry Coyne! – anti-compatibilist dogmatist.

  16. chemicalscum says:

    I am really look forward to reading your new book. I am sure I will enjoy as much as I have enjoyed your previous books and find it equally enlightening.

  17. James Gallagher says:

    Hey, I wanted to write this book!

    I’m just working out the best 6-dimensional eigenspace for the max eigenvalue in U(t+dt) = (e^(hL) – I)U(t) , and then we’re set. Surprised no one got to it already.

  18. DBB says:

    The “Poetic” simply means that there are many ways of talking about the world, and any one that is both (1) useful, and (2) compatible with the underlying fundamental reality, deserves a place at the table. Some of those ways of talking will simply be emergent descriptions of physics and higher levels, but some will also be matters of judgment and meaning.

    “Pluralistic naturalism” seems like a more accurate way to describe that, if that’s all you really wanted to evoke. I don’t know, is the poetry part supposed to come with “judgment and meaning”? Isn’t that an important feature of every field?

    Maybe I should just read the book. I probably will, and I’m looking forward to it.

    Why is there a universe at all, and is it best explained by something outside itself?

    If you’ve learned some sort of a lesson from the Krauss book, I hope you’re careful about the distinction between something outside science as a discipline, and something outside the natural world. Philosophers have useful approaches or perspectives on this which aren’t strictly scientific, and that’s very different from saying they’re appealing to something supernatural or non-natural. As you said, there are many different useful and consistently naturalistic ways of thinking about the world, which don’t all amount to doing science or having empirical evidence for anything (and everything and nothing and all the rest).

    Maybe this isn’t even something that requires explanation, a scientific explanation, a naturalistic one, a supernatural one, or any other kind. That’s a reasonable possibility, but science is not the sort of thing you use to determine that or think about it. I mean, if you see a pattern in the world, sure, you have some evidence that you notice, you come up with a hypothesis about it, claiming there’s a physical law, a specific physical effect or something like that. That stuff can be explained. But what could you be talking about when you say you’re going to “explain” the fact that there is anything? Would any pattern in any data show that there isn’t anything?

    Why we can’t derive ought from is, even if “is” is all there is.

    Hume’s often misunderstood, and this is taken to have a much wider application than it actually does. It’s not the Earth-shattering thing some people think. Concerning Hume himself, he was not arguing for some kind of emotivism or whatever. He didn’t think it’s nonexistent, unreal, unnatural, not objective, not truth-apt, not descriptive of any thing, etc. He argued quite a bit against ideas like that, because he thought humans have many basic natural interests in common on which we can build a coherent moral philosophy. That in turn can be helpful in making judgments about extremely specific circumstances when some interests “really are” in conflict.

    …. Do we worry ourselves about whether a conflict “really is” happening, or whether people “really do” have interests, like with the question of what it means to say something “really is” good or bad, whether it “really means” something to us? What would be the purpose of talking about it “as if there’s conflict,” which we must invent for ourselves since the world naturally lacks it without our help, when you can plainly see there’s a war or something like that happening? Doesn’t that seem a little absurd? It’s just an ordinary fact about ourselves or what is happening to us, like other facts except that its relationship to us and what we are provides us with additional reasons to care….

    In any case, whatever you think of my take on it, what he said isn’t easily summarized in an out-of-context soundbite, of the sort you would toss at someone in an angry and pointless internet debate. If he even comes up in the book, will you at least not pin the blame on him for all this unnecessary confusion? It drives me bonkers any time someone says the phrase “can’t derive an ought from an is,” because I can smell what’s coming a mile away.

  19. mike says:

    looking forward to it

  20. wolfgang says:

    >> there is only one world
    I thought you believe in the many-worlds interpretation?

  21. Platohagel says:

    Looking forward to your new book, and will be adding “The Big Picture,” to your others.
    I find your book and subject timely.


  22. This looks like a dangerous book. I wish you good luck in the endeavour. Maybe I will buy it. It is a pitty we will have to wait so long for it (I wish it was already ready and available). Some words of caution have been said above by other commentators, and I should side with them. Some problems tend to come when an author decides to take this kind of line of reasoning (as seems to be the case with this up-coming book of yours). One big problem is amateurism. I remember Carl Sagan, in The Demon Haunted World, giving advice for a better educational system… Sounded pretty much naive and misplaced for me. (Granted: maybe he was right and it was I who was uninformed). Another (usually big too) problem is agenda (usually somewhat “political,” i.e. targeted at veering the balance of power and/or influence of some group in detriment of another group. Often too, these agendas are somewhat hidden, or not fully explicit, and, depending on the author, unconscious/subconscious to varying degrees). Agenda is not a problem in itself. But often it is implemented in such a way that ends up being problematic.

    I must say that, as it is now, I already see some points that I would like to “criticize” to a certain extent. I may do this in a following comment. Just to highlight it, introductorily: the choice of the title, though interesting from the “selling” point of view, seems problematic for me. Origins of life, meaning, and the universe itself. The order of the items seems strange. The items themselves seem somewhat strange. The keyword (origins) seems strange. Further (and this might be a matter of discussion of yours with the editors), I find it a little bit odd to see a duality in all parts of the book (being and stories, knowledge and belief, etc). Lots can be said about this ever repeating duality, and lots can be thought about it. I may dwell on it further later on.

    One question springs to mind from a spiritualist inclined possible reader like myself: your “naturalism” includes the possibility of gods, or god (maybe even God), souls (death surviving ones, and/or everlasting ones), and similar items? If not, why not? Aren’t they, if they exist, natural? Why not? You see, materialists have successfully managed to prove that we, spiritualists, are stupid. What they have not managed to do so far, unfortunately, is to explain WHY are we stupid (i.e. what is REALLY wrong with our views…). And… if you plan to venture into items like “the possibility of an afterlife,” “the possibility of some of the things studied in parapsychology like telepathy, telekinesis, reincarnation, clairvoyance,” “consciousness,” and “free will,” I highly recommend heavy artillary back up!


  23. David Rutten says:

    I’m glad you don’t post all the time Sean, makes me feel better about my own slack approach to blogging. If only you weren’t so bloody good about getting books out in addition to your day-job I’d feel even better…

  24. Antonio (AKA "Un físico") says:

    I would not spend a penny in such a book. Where are those great american scientists like Carl Sagan?. It was worthy for anyone’s cultural development to spend money with Carl’s, but not with Sean’s.

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