The Big Picture: What It’s All About

Many years ago I had the pleasure of attending a public lecture on cosmology by Martin Rees, one of the leading theoretical astrophysicists of our time and a wonderful speaker. For the most part his choice of material was unimpeachably conventional, but somewhere in the middle of explaining the evolution of the universe he suddenly started talking about the possibility of life on other planets. You could sense the few scientists in the room squirming uncomfortably — this wasn’t cosmology at all! But the actual public, to whom the talk was addressed, loved it. They didn’t care about fussy academic boundary enforcement; they thought these questions were interesting, and were curious about how it all fit together.

Since then, following Martin’s example, I have occasionally slipped into my own talks some discussion of how the particular bit of science I was discussing fit into a larger context. What are the implications of quantum mechanics for free will, or entropy for aging and death, or the multiverse for morality? To (what should be) nobody’s surprise, those are often what people want to follow up on in questions after the talk. Professional scientists will feel an urge to correct them, arguing that those aren’t the questions they should be asking about. But I think it’s okay. Science isn’t just about solving this or that puzzle; it’s about understanding how the world works. The whole world, from the vastness of the cosmos to the particularity of an individual human life. It’s worth thinking about how all the different ways we have to talk about the world manage to fit together.

That idea is one of the motivating considerations behind my new book, The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself, which is being released next week (Tuesday May 10 — I may be visiting your area). It’s a big book, covering a lot of things, so over the next few days I’m going to put up some posts containing small excerpts that give a flavor what what’s inside. You can get a general feeling from glancing at the table of contents. I also can’t resist pointing you to check out the amazing blurbs that so many generous people were thoughtful enough to contribute — Elizabeth Kolbert, Neil Shubin, Deborah Blum, Alan Lightman, Sabine Hossenfelder, Michael Gazzaniga, Carlo Rovelli, and Neil deGrasse Tyson.

This book is a culmination of things I’ve been thinking about for a long time. I’ve loved physics from a young age, but I’ve also been interested in all sorts of “big” questions, from philosophy to evolution and neuroscience. And what these separate fields have in common is that they all aim to capture certain aspects of the same underlying universe. Therefore, while they are indisputably separate fields of endeavor — you don’t need to understand particle physics to be a world-class biologist — they must nevertheless be compatible with each other — if your theory of biology relies on forces that are not part of the Standard Model, it’s probably a non-starter. That’s more of a constraint than you might imagine. For example, it implies that there is no such thing as life after death. Your memories and other pieces of mental information are encoded in the arrangement of atoms in your brain, and there’s no way for that information to escape your body when you die.

More generally, ontology matters. What we believe about the fundamental nature of reality affects how we look at the world and how we choose to live our lives. We should work to get it right.

The viewpoint I advocate in TBP is poetic naturalism. “Naturalism” being the idea that there is only one world, the natural world, that follows the laws of nature and can be investigated using the methods of science. “Poetic” emphasizes the fact that there are many ways of talking about that world, and that different stories we tell can be simultaneously valid in their own domains of applicability. It is therefore distinguished from a hardcore, eliminativist naturalism that says the only things that really exist are the fundamental particles and forces, and also from various varieties of augmented naturalism that, unsatisfied with the physical world by itself, add extra categories such as mental properties or objective moral values into the mix.

Along the way, we meet a lot of fun ideas — conservation of momentum and information, emergent purpose and causality, Bayesian inference, skepticism, planets of belief, effective field theory, the Core Theory, the origin of the universe, the relationship between entropy and complexity, free energy and the purpose of life, metabolism-first and replication-first theories of abiogenesis, the fine-tuning argument, consciousness and philosophical zombies, panpsychism, Humean constructivism, and the basic finitude of our lives.

Not everyone agrees with my point of view on these matters, of course. (It’s possible that literally nobody agrees with me about every single stance I take.) That’s good! Bring it on, I say. Maybe I will learn something and change my mind. There are plenty of things I talk about in the book on which respectable good-faith disagreement is quite possible — finer points of epistemology and metaphysics, the connections between different manifestations of the arrow of time, how to confront radically skeptical scenarios, the robustness of the Core Theory, approaches to the mind-body problem, interpretations of quantum mechanics, the best way to think about complexity and evolution, the role of purposes and causes in our ontology, free will, moral realism vs, anti-realism, and so on.

The point of the book is not to stride confidently into multiple ongoing debates and proclaim that I have it All Figured Out. Quite the opposite: while the subtitle correctly implies that I talk about the origins of life, meaning, and the universe itself, the truth is that I don’t know how life began, what the meaning of it all is, or why the universe exists. What I try to advocate is a particular framework in which these kinds of questions can be addressed. Not everyone will agree even with that framework, but it is very explicitly just a starting point for thinking about some of these grand issues, not the final answers to them.

There will inevitably be complaints that I’m writing about things — biology, neuroscience, philosophy — on which I am not an academic expert. Very true! I’m pretty sure nobody in the world is an expert on absolutely everything I talk about here. But I’m just as sure that different kinds of experts need to occasionally wander outside of their intellectual comfort zones to discuss how all of these pieces fit together. My primary hope in TBP is not to put forward some dramatically original view of the universe, but to work toward a synthesis of a wide variety of ideas that have been developed by smart people of the course of centuries. It is at best a small step, but if it helps spark ongoing conversation, I’ll consider the book a great success.

So from people who don’t read the book very carefully, I’ll no doubt get it from both sides: “Knowing physics doesn’t make you an expert on the meaning of life, how dare he presume?” and “I read the whole book and he didn’t tell me what the meaning of life is, what a cheat!” So be it.

One thing that I meant to include in the Acknowledgements section of the book, but unfortunately it slipped my mind at the last minute: I should have mentioned how much my ideas about many of these topics have been shaped and sharpened by interacting with commenters on this very blog. Longtime readers will recognize many of the themes, even if the book presents them in a different way. I’ve definitely learned a lot from questions and arguments in the comment sections here (even if I’m usually too busy to participate very much myself). So — thank you, and I hope you enjoy the book!

 

  1. I am fascinated by the search for “meaning” in human lives. The idea itself is narcissistic and the search seems futile. It seems a great deal like people searching their genealogies to find somebody famous they are related to, or searching for “past lives” to find out they used to be a princess or an emperor. (Hint: in your past lives you were a farmer and a hunter-gather.)

    If people would shift gears a bit and look at this a different way as in: “How can I create meaning for others?” we might be a tad better off.

  2. I am very excited to read this book, I had preordered it awhile back. This will be a very different book than I am used to reading, since I usually read writers like Dr. William Lane Craig whom you debated sometime back. It’ll be a good book to apply some of the physics I learned from your General Relativity text book as well as from my other physics courses (also from your talk at Arizona State University on the many worlds interpretation of Quantum Mechanics). When it comes to the mind-body problem I always consulted people like Rene Descartes, Richard Swinburne, and Timothy O’ Conner. It’ll be interesting to consider the arguments you give for the non existence of a non physical mind and for the non existence of the after life.

  3. This is just musing prompted by inspiring books such as TBP. It is most natural to think of the Universe in ways with which we are comfortable and familiar. Namely, in human terms. Sometimes that might become an impediment perhaps. Take environmental decoherence. Once human observers intervene, a perfectly natural process going on for nearly 14 billion years gets distracted by the measurement problem, observer hierarchy etc. Is QM “interpretation” without human intervention an oxymoron? Or should one resign to: “I think, therefore I am. I am, therefore I can’t think”?

  4. I have preordered your book and I can hardly wait to see all the beautiful concepts rolled into one book. I remember reading your SA article why there is nothing after death and why a you are an atheist. My friend always said you were the polite atheist not like the others which attracted him to your books versus others. Myself I enjoy anyone’s books that challenge the norm with proper evidence but you do have a respect that is demonstrated in the way you deal with everyone who you agrees with and does not. You are special person. I will be looking forward to hear more of entropy and the time line and fine tuning. I want to hear about whether quantum processes are just limited to subatomic level or will it extend to gravity and space with the possibility of finding primordial gravitational waves or the graviton. Basically is core equation applicable to all the universe? I can hardly wait. You inspired me to write also about rock music and science . My new novice pop/science book will be based on my experience in pop culture, game maker, and as a rock writer for an online magazine and as a novice, science/computer school teacher for teens at the Toronto District School Board. You and John Gribbin were one of the first science books I ever read . I can hardly wait.

  5. Me too! Should be in my mail box in a few weeks 😀

    I wish my PI would read this lol

  6. I’ve sure you’ve heard this objection before, but your argument against life after death is based on a straw man. I’ve never heard anyone who believes in life after death define it as being energy or forces that could in principle be described by the laws of physics.

    The best argument I’ve heard for the immateriality of the human mind (and thus the soul) goes something like this:

    1. Abstract ideas cannot be stored in anything material.
    2. The human mind understands abstract ideas.
    3. Therefore the human mind is immaterial.

  7. Of course you are welcome to believe anything you want. The point is not “physics shows that life after death is impossible”; it’s to highlight how much of a dramatic and unsupported alteration of known physics is required to make such a thing work. Whatever nonphysical mechanisms you want to invoke, you have to ultimately explain how they interact with the physical aspects of the brain, in manifest violation of physics as we know it. Certainly possible, but a considerable burden for anyone who wants to suggest a respectable scenario for how it might work.

  8. I guess I’m not clear on why an immaterial soul that by definition cannot be described by the laws of physics needs new physics to describe it.

  9. It needs to modify the physics that exists, which is otherwise autonomous. Otherwise the “soul” has no effect on what people think, say, or do.

  10. Best of luck with the book sales, mine is on order. It is unusual for a scientist to speculate in fields outside their expertise. As long as the speculation is not in conflict with established science (I.e. Validated by tests) from that field, and the speculation is called out as such, it adds to the conversation.

  11. The nature of science is opposite to that of philosophy. It believes in “analysis” whereas “synthesis” is what motivates philosophy. So, a scientist turning into a philosopher, is nothing new. I will take you one step further!
    More you share the knowledge, more it ‘increases’. You may like to consider putting your book on-line so that more people ‘benefit’ & benefit you in return, by exchanging their views.
    Warm regards & best wishes. I am one of your many silent admirers, with some knowledge about Vedic philosophy; I consider Vedic sages to be great scientists of all time!!!

  12. Hi Sean,
    the statement “religion is untrue” that you made about the book in the “better life” podcast sounds incredibly naive from a professional philosophical standpoint. Is there e.g. a critical discussion of the philosopher Paul Feyerabend’s standpoint in your new book? He argued – quite convincingly i.m.h.o. – that science and religion are just different ideologies with different basic assumptions that cannot be proven true or false. Also your claim (fond hope?) that consciousness can be explained on the basis of the known laws of physics is doubted with (for me) comprehensible reasons by eminent experts – e.g. by the psychologist Benjamin Libet in his classic “Mind Time”. Are such arguments dealt with in your book?

  13. “fussy academic boundary enforcement”. there is no shared border between the subjects of cosmology and extraterrestrial life. the two share no more in common than does cosmology with evolution.

  14. With regards to skeptical scenarios, you say there’s reason to assign them a low prior because they are unhelpful, not productive, etc. But, this doesn’t seem to give us an Epistemic reason to assign them a low prior, merely a Pragmatic reason. For example, if a billionaire comes up to us and offers us a million dollars if we have prior X, this gives us a Pragmatic reason to have X as our prior, but not an Epistemic reason. If we only have the prior we have in virtue of wanting to get at the truth (i.e. in virtue of epistemic reasons), I still don’t see why we should assign skeptical scenarios a low prior. Do you consider yourself a Subjective Bayesian in the sense that every prior is just as rational to hold as any other? Or do you think that it’s a rational requirement to assign low credence to skeptical scenarios? If yes, in virtue of what Epistemic reason is it not rational to have an anti-inductivist prior or a skeptical one, etc.

  15. With science as phenomena driven I’m not sure science, more esp. physics, can even approach an explanation of people’s anomalous and so called mystical experiences as reported now and over all times. I don’t think the emergence picture cuts this either.

  16. Will there be a German version of your book in the near future? I would love to give it as a gift to my daughter. Keep on the good work!

  17. Honestly I’m not good at keeping track, but I don’t think there’s yet an agreement for a German edition. Hopefully it will happen.

  18. So is this available in Kindle format?

    I like your writing style. I’ll give it a read even if I disagree with your fundamental metaphysical assumptions.

  19. “No such thing as life after death”

    This is the sort of obvious induction error that gets made by scientists-being-philosophers (not to mention many philosophers) all the time. This statement (I read the essay to which it points) is grounded in an ontological assumption whose truth cannot be demonstrated nor falsified by science — or philosophy. What science CAN say is something like “there is no mechanism of the natural world that can support any concept of life-after-death”. That would be a true statement within the purview of science. It doesn’t preclude life-after-death because it leaves open the possibility that there is a supernatural-world that does support it.