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.

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152 Responses to The Big Picture: The Talk

  1. Thought-provoking!

    The Big Picture is a beautiful collage of intellectual images (of religion, philosophy, science, metaphysics, ethics), seemingly diverse, but in truth interwoven, all, by rational thought. Thank you, professor Carroll.

  2. David Rutten says:

    Sean, you mentioned the jury in the trial of Lucia de Berk, I’m pretty sure there’s no such thing in Dutch courts, there’s only panels of judges as far as I know.

  3. Sean Carroll says:

    I’m sure you’re right, I’m not an expert. I’ll try to be more accurate next time.

  4. Rhett says:

    Again, really appreciate the treatment given to the process of entropic time given in the book…

    I think one of the great accomplishments of the book is giving the “soup to nuts” explanation as to how complexity has arisen in our universe…

    To me, I’ve sort of settled on the analogy to a waterfall…or the rapids in a river. As the water flows from a state of high potential energy as the river, in fairly smooth and orderly form (like a low entropy state), to the state of low potential energy, in mixed form as the water crashes and mixes at the bottom (a high entropy state), it flows over fixed impediments that create complex eddies… We, and all our fellow complex forms in the universe (stars, galaxies, tardigrades, mushrooms, etc…) are just the eddies that form as water crashed into the fixed impediments that are the laws of physics…

    Anyhow, I think having this sort of clear explanation of how complexity arises, and how we both understand that process fairly well and how we can demonstrate that understanding, is key to answering the questions posed by those who are perhaps religious adherents and “skeptical” of naturalism…

    I see it all the time… The “how can this universe have organized itself like this on its own?” or “if humans came from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?” type questions… These are big questions that are really fundamental to a lot of people out there… So to answer these questions, or at least to have the answer there is really important…

    I’ve been commenting a good amount here about the book, but again as someone who came from a religious upbringing, I really can’t emphasize enough how important it is to have a book of this type out there. A non-threatening work that lays out everything we know and why the naturalist ontology is appealing. All built literally from the ground up….just a really important book.

    Great stuff!

  5. James Rose says:

    You might find the work of Howard Odum, that he named the ’emergy’ cascade system, to be useful to you – identifying and describing that energy flow from solar through biological systems. But even then, Odum’s energy network is not as simplistic/complete as his model suggests. What still needs blending in, is the glaringly missing ‘local-driver mechanism(s)’ that pump energy into higher local ‘reservoirs’ – eg, from AMP to ADP to ATP. …. local -‘LOWER’- entropy sinks/plateaus. I.e., a general theory mechanism, for the aggregation and increase in ‘complexity’ which the ATP system (and similar ones, like the circular Kreb Citric Acid Cycle) require and perform … -against- general dissipative entropy. [sub-noting that ’emergence’ is an interesting label for that part of biological energy processing, (related to Prigogine, et al), but a broad simple specific ‘general mechanism’ has yet to be enunciated.]

  6. John B says:

    You will never get a fish to live in one of those fish bowls. It takes having an actual fish tank with a filter and an air pump. The air pump oxygenates the water, so the fish can breath. The filter helps eliminate toxins from their bio waste. It can also helps to put a bottom feeder in with them to help with that. Last but not least, you also have to feed them about twice a day. If you feed them every time you walk up to the tank and stop, they will expect to get fed whenever you do.

  7. Torbjörn Larsson says:

    Rhett: “To me, I’ve sort of settled on the analogy to a waterfall…or the rapids in a river. As the water flows from a state of high potential energy as the river, in fairly smooth and orderly form (like a low entropy state), to the state of low potential energy, in mixed form as the water crashes and mixes at the bottom (a high entropy state), it flows over fixed impediments that create complex eddies… We, and all our fellow complex forms in the universe (stars, galaxies, tardigrades, mushrooms, etc…) are just the eddies that form as water crashed into the fixed impediments that are the laws of physics…”

    I haven’t yet listened to Sean’s talk, but I think this is a very correct and poetic way to put it.

    To put it in the perspective of emergence of life, which James touch on, I don’t think there is any ‘general mechanism’ that is in action besides chemical evolution tying into biological evolution, seemingly unavoidable in some geological settings who can spawn genetic systems. [Which I elaborated at length in a discussion under Big Pictures chapters on complexity.]

    I know Russell et al has tried to make an analogy to refrigerators by researching metal atom ‘engines’ that can increase the potential of one electron while another’s potential is lowered, but nothing has come out of it yet. On the other hand groups have been very successful in showing how ordered metabolic like pathways can spontaneously arise without [Keller et al; ] or with [Roldan et al; ] natural metal catalysts. The latter does the heavy work of lowering local entropy for the simple substrates by constrained surface chemistry, and the former produces from there the complex compounds during flow through product separation. The complex compounds produce genes in the same (i.e. one pot) natural flow through reactor as it grows, perhaps predicting the necessary entropy flow to the environment.

    But evolution in a hereditary system is a productive general tinker. It lives, entropy wise, by finding a sink for a free energy electron by any means it can come away with. Exaptating the metabolic like pathways in order to better procreate is an easy reach. C.f. how more modern oxygenating photosynthesis can oxidize water by repeatedly raising electron free energy by photons, then reduce the free protons, all the while producing ATP. The oxygenated environment is then an excellent oxidizer, including for the photosynthesizers. That seems to me like an early example of Dawkins’s extended phenotype. c.f. how beavers labor to decrease entropy of its immediate environment in order to better procreate.

  8. Sonali Sengupta says:

    Sean, I do not know whether you have read the “vital question” by Nick lane. It pins down everything to energy movement/transformation. Judging from the cover photo of your facebook page ,I think these energy transformations can be expressed as equations, thus completing the links in the chain. So we may have a mathematical approach to the “Big Picture”.

  9. James Rose says:

    Has anyone here explored the possibility of ‘plural’ and/or ‘competing’ entropy streams and groups?

  10. zarzuelazen says:

    I would question some of the things Sean said about ‘causality’, and I also want to mention a really astounding, really bizarre hypothesis about consciousness that I am now convinced is correct – how’s that’s for a teaser to read on 😉

    I agree that ‘causality’ can’t be fundamental, and I also agree that it’s emergent ‘high-level’ property. However, there is a critical point that has been missed here: there must still be some logical principles that relate the high-level descriptions to the fundamental (physics) level!

    Think about ‘the arrow of time’ again. As Sean correctly pointed out, the reason events appear to us to move in one direction (the increase in entropy) is because the entropy was much lower in the past. But this an *extra* fact *not* in the fundamental laws of physics itself! (it is a ‘boundary condition’)

    The point here is that this *extra* fact about the entropy being much lower in the past, can be interpreted as a *new* law: a ‘law of causality’, that explains how to relate some of our high-level descriptions of the world to the fundamental level.

    Listen to the question-time and someone asks Sean a very good question about statistical mechanics, raising the same critical point: it was pointed out that what we actually see on a high-level (the ’emergent properties’), is sensitive to exactly how we go about the ‘coarse-graining’. Now in his answer, Sean basically admitted this is correct.

    So again, you need *extra* logical principles to explain exactly how to relate the high-level emergent properties to the fundamental level, and these extra principles can be interpreted as new laws: laws of causality!

    Sean also made some very interesting points about thinking, and how closely it seems to be tied into ‘the arrow of time’; our perception of time is closely linked to our consciousness….

    OK, so now I will state my ‘astounding hypothesis’ about consciousness. This is going to sound extremely bizarre at first, but please re-read all I have said above, think carefully, and you will realize it’s not so crazy……

    Hypothesis: Consciousness IS Causality!

    Remember the close link between time and consciousness? I am suggesting they are one and the same thing! I am suggesting that the abstract property ‘causality’ literally IS subjective experience (or consciousness). [Yes, this does imply some form of panpsychism, the idea that there’s a bit of consciousness in nearly everything – or that in everything for which ‘causality’ is a meaningful concept].

  11. Jay Portnoy says:

    Sean, I don’t understand half of what you say, but what I do understand is amazing. You are one of the most enlightening thinkers of our time. I am awed by your insights. Please keep them coming.

  12. Rhett says:

    I don’t understand (I mean, I do understand, but am more surprised when it comes from mature folks vice younger ones…) why people feel consciousness needs to have some more magical explanation. I mean it seems fairly readily apparent and intuitive that it is simply an emergent physical phenomenon. Why all the gymnastics?

  13. zarzuelazen says:


    Well of course consciousness is ‘an emergent physical phenomenon’, but that in itself doesn’t explain much. Whilst such an important phenomenon remains unexplained, there’s a hole in the explanatory framework of science, and the possibility still can’t be ruled out that something really tricky is going on here.

    Clearly core theory by itself does *not* in fact explain the everyday world we see at all. See my above post. Additional assumptions have to be slipped in which are *not* part of the laws of physics at all! In order to explain the ‘arrow of time’ for instance, the big ‘extra’ that’s been slipped in is that ‘entropy was extremely low at a point in the distant past’. I pointed out that this extra bit is *not* in core theory at all, and only once you slip this in can the arrow of time be explained. So it just isn’t true that core theory by itself explains the everyday world.

    How do we know that there isn’t something really tricky going on with these ’emergent physical phenomenon’?

  14. Platohagel says:


    I didn’t have the time to trace the flow of free energy from the Sun to photosynthesis to ATP to muscle contractions

    That would be interesting process to see unfolded.

  15. James Rose says:

    Platohagel, My apologies for being repetitive, but Howard Odum already worked on describing the solar-to-biological energy cascade and sub-cycles in his Emergy Flow Theory. Some links to review: . There are several variations of charting that can be found through google searching “emergy flow diagram” (use ‘m’ not ‘n’ in emergy).
    = = =

    Some questions. If “consciousness is causality” then where does consciousness first appear in the universe … at what level of organization? What form does it appear as; does it take? Is any ‘causal event’ a display of ‘(self) consciousness’? = = = Or, does the phrase mean, “consciousness is but one form of causality”?

  16. John B says:

    Consciousness is causality? Please, no wonder why Sean says he is fed up with people trying to tell him their theories… This really doesn’t require any counter argument. Look up the word causality, and quit taking any drugs you may be on at the moment.

    I have to say that I don’t think Sean’s views on microscopic scale and the macroscopic scale are very mainstream. He mentions that GR and QM don’t play well together, but most authors I have read take this a bit further. It raises the question if there is an actual causal link between GR and QM. There may not be a definable cause and effect interaction between things on the microscopic scale and the macroscopic scale. Then other authors also provide the disclaimer that it may just be due to our inability to unit these two differing theories, and it may not actually be something in principal that affects the real world.

    Personally, I think it helps the free will argument. If there is no clearly defined set of rules that can be made to determine what happens in our brains to what we actually end up doing, then our actions can be more random and unable to be mathematically determined. For the sake of free will, I believe that such a link between these two theories could never really be established.

  17. zarzuelazen says:


    Definition of causality: “information transmission across mechanistic hierarchies,”
    What happens in the brain: “information transmission across mechanistic hierarchies,”
    How does the ‘arrow of time’ emerge: “information transmission across mechanistic hierarchies,”

    We have a match!


    Some level of consciousness would be present where-ever there is a ‘causal event’ (as defined above). So once you’ve reached a high enough level that the notion of ‘causality’ is meaningful (the arrow of time is present), consciousness would start to appear. That would exclude sub-atomic particles for example, but larger objects would all have a little bit of consciousness present.

    So the idea is that consciousness is the ‘informational glue’ that connects together the different levels of organization in the universe. It does all make an insane kind of sense 😉

  18. Rhett says:

    Well, I prefer not to live in the world of “deepities”…
    I don’t think the low entropy of the early universe establishing the arrow of time is something slipped in, it’s simply the initial condition. We don’t have an established theory as to why that was the initial condition, but that doesn’t make what follows magic.
    Again, I still don’t get this whole mystery surrounding consciousness. What is the mystery? I’m serious, I really want to know. It seems pretty straightforward to me.
    Humans are simply recursion engines, being pushed through reality by the entropic force. An input comes into the machine, combines with the current state and you get the next state. What is the mystery? What is tricky?

  19. James Rose says:

    Zarzuelazaen: I happen to agree with you in the broadest sense of the word ‘consciousness’ … being a type of sentience capacity while existing in some environment. As a biologist initially (later expanding to embrace ‘behaviors’ of all dynamics systems), I have found it difficult to sustain the notion of ‘human consciousness’ as the criteria. From there, it is difficult to pinpoint some stage of evolution of organisms where ‘consciousness’ “suddenly emerges and presents itself”. But in researching the ‘prior art’ of such a thought line, you, I, and other similar thinkers were scooped by 126 years with this notion. Thomas Edison made the same proposal in 1890 in an article he wrote for Harper’s Weekly. Albeit that the problem still remains: to make a reasonable and consistent argument and re-definition that the science community at large could accede to, for such a notion. 🙂

    There is a significant body of writings involved with “Towards a Science of Consciousness” conferences, by a prestigious list of Nobel Laureates and peer attendees from circa 1994 to now, University of Arizona. I suggest you explore the conferences archives for some interesting reading.

    From my research perspective, the key is related to ‘causality’ but not necessarily affixed to it. All possible transforms and active state changes present the fundamental pre-cursive aspects of consciousness. A library is full of static data (nee ‘information’) but it is neither sentient nor conscious. Maxwell’s Demon .. interacting and engaging with the matter~energy states (which, to my worldview, maps directly with the read-write head of a Turing Machine) exhibits the simplistic primitive ‘sentience~consciousness’ qualities~qualia. So, it is data~energy, in motion and recursive, that is the essential function process of sentience. To reach the implicit characteristics we tacitly mean when talking about sentience~consciousness . . there has to be memory storage (enduring states continuity) and consistent, meaningful, existence preservation behaviors; awareness and behaviors reinforcing awareness. Actively processing. Causal processing is a piece of the puzzle but not the foundation qualia, that allows us to say : ” Here Be Consciousness”. (Word playing on the old maps label of unknown mysterious regions, “Here Be Dragons”.)

  20. Terry Stewart says:

    Initial low entropy of the universe —

    I am having difficulty appreciating this since my understanding is that low entropy implies high order. In what sense did the early universe have high order? My image is a chaotic, high temperature place with no order at all.
    Could it be that it was low entropy only because it was confined to a very small space (or, to put it another way, because space itself was small)?

  21. Brian Pansky says:

    I’m wondering if anyone is familiar with a book that is similar to The Big Picture, it’s called Sense and Goodness Without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism, written by philosopher/historian Richard Carrier. Either way, I highly recommend it, and his other writings! You can check out the table of contents here:

    Yes, it goes over topics like consciousness too. Like I said, it goes over a lot of similar territory! And I think the two of them agree with each other quite a lot.


    There aren’t even any “levels” that need to be connected (reductionism is true), we just choose to categorize things into “levels” so that we can easily think about them.

    @John B

    Your worry about determinism is misplaced. All the desirable features of Free Will are evidently present in us regardless of whether or not Determinism is true. It is a mistake to mix up Free Will and the question of Determinism. The two are independent. This in known as “Compatibilism”.

    In fact, being undetermined is not a desirable situation. Random choices are not what we want ourselves to be doing when it comes to important moral decisions. We want to reliably choose the right thing! And if you are talking about tiny random fluctuations that don’t make huge moral impact, then they don’t matter enough for you to hope for them like you just did.

    Here’s a blog post by Carrier on your kind of comment:

  22. zarzuelazen says:

    Yes James,
    Once you start viewing the world in terms of ‘information’, it’s actually quite natural to think that there must a little bit of consciousness in everything (panpsychism), since information processing is going on everywhere. But of course, we can then ask what *specific* features of information processing are needed, and therein lies the rub.
    The problem with taking the world to be purely ‘physical’ is that a presumption is being made about the ultimate nature of reality, but I think this presumption is unjustified. As Kant pointed out, it’s hard to see how we could ever know reality in itself. All we have is ‘modes of description’ (categories of thought).
    Imagine three types of glasses that filter light, Red, Green and Blue. One guy puts on the ‘Red’ glasses, all he sees is red everywhere. Another guy puts on the ‘Blue’ set of glasses, all he sees is blue everywhere. And of course the third guy only sees ‘Green’ when he wears the green glasses.
    I think the terms ‘Physical’, ‘Mental’ and ‘Mathematical’ are just like the colours – they are not features of ultimate reality, but categories through which we view the world.
    So let’s imagine three types of glasses. ‘Sean Carroll’ glasses, ‘Max Tegmark’ glasses, and ‘Deepak Chopra’ glasses. Someone puts on the ‘Sean Carroll’ glasses, all they see is physical properties everywhere. Another guy puts on the ‘Max Tegmark’ glasses, suddenly everything looks like mathematics (‘all is number’). The third guy puts on the ‘Deepak Chopra’ glasses, suddenly the world looks like a little bit of consciousness everywhere 😉
    In the case of colors, the thing that distinguished them was the wavelength. In the case of the different properties of reality, I think the distinguishing feature is the ‘level of abstraction’ at which we view the world (how closely we ‘zoom in’/’zoom out’ and in what manner – the technical term is ‘coarse graining’). But again, the point is that the terms ‘physical’, ‘mental’ and ‘mathematics’ are not ultimate features of reality, but just categories through which we view reality.

  23. James Rose says:

    That’s the conventional ‘partitioning’ of existence, similar to De Cartes’ “mind-body split”, or, David Chalmers’ “hard problem” of consciousness, and similar. But, of all the rationales I’ve read over the years, I prefer Benjamin Whorf’s description.
    “We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native language. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscope flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds—and this means largely by the linguistic systems of our minds. We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way—an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language […] all observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar, or can in some way be calibrated.”

    Whorf died early and has been evaluated in many ways regarding his ‘linguistic relativity.’ What – I – picked up on as being special~important about ‘information (specialties)’, language(s) viewpoint, and local fields’ vernaculars, is Whorf’s ‘cast-off’ phrase at the end of that quote: “… unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar, or can in some way be calibrated.” “CAN IN SOMEWAY BE CALIBRATED” The critically essential notion in that remark is, that we live in a universe that inter-relationally functions coherently and consistently … within tiers of order and among the emerged tiers of order. Smoothly. Which forces us to consider finding the best possible paradigm~model where in the descriptors, languages (including mathematics), are accessible to one another, can ‘map’ meaningfully across the differences. Unifying cross-coding transforms – must neccessarily – exist . . . in a way that, in itself, corresponds with the universe’s natural pan-functional communications and behaviors.

    It’s my sentiment, that the current several viewpoints of separate fields are close, but not quite aligned … efficiently cross ‘calibrated’ (together).

    Even the current interpretation of entropy is deficient. (Or should I say, ‘the several different definition(s) of ‘entropy’ ‘.) There are conceptual discrepancies in them as well. So I know Sean is on the right track. But some deeper seminal re-working, of how the distinct primal and emerged domains, are coordinated together, needs to be better enunciated. “Consciousness” descriptors can then be filtered back in, identified, and talked about meaningfully. But that’s quite another task, for the discussion of a TOE in it’s clinical aspects first. Which primal stage is where Sean’s ideas are at, at the moment.

    For the moment I’m a bit confused. In the British audience presentation, around time mark 53:20 he says (paraphrasing), “everything is deterministic” (because of initial low-entropy and the arrow of (one-dimensional) time.” But later on, around time mark 01:01:25, he contradicts that statement when he remarks, “causality is emergent”. So even though he prefers determinism across all behavior systems in the universe, it looks like he still pays homage to precursive QM, even if there is no enunciation of how they …. “calibrate”.

  24. Simon Packer says:

    Anthropomorphism, generalized out to include all attempts to re-make reality in our own image, takes many subtle, mild, but far-reaching (in terms of self-deception) forms.

    Business as usual here for naturalism. A lot of circular reasoning with no idea what to take as your absolute datum, your immutable starting point. ‘Core Theory?’. Consciousness/Freewill? Entropy laws and starting point? Arrow of Time? Natural Selection? Benevolence? etc etc?? An opinionated and ultimately unfocused mish-mash of all of these?

    Suppose our natural realm is, in regard to its physics, math, relational, sensual and emotional aspects, merely a limited, simplified, projection of a gloriously greater supernatural realm, then naturalism is at best limited and at worst, plain stubborn-dumb. You can mock or dislike this hypothesis, but you cannot disprove it. Suppose that supernatural realm itself entails a supernatural being. You are ultimately at the mercy of the personality and character of that supernatural agency, because intellectually and operationally he has you in the palm of his hand.

    Sean is a far better mathematician and physicist than I, but I can find enough circular logic in his material to doubt that he is approaching a logically derived and self-contained picture of the reality we generally experience. Even if he and others succeed in the naturalistic endeavour, (which I don’t think for a moment will happen) one might point out that some supernatural agency with far superior intellect and ability might have deliberately constrained our abilities to probe fully the possible scope of complete reality.

    Not just our physics, but even our ideas of what is logical, are probably partially a product of our limited natural human framework of existence.

  25. Jens says:

    Thanks for this wonderful talk! The only kink I noticed is that a BOLD fMRI image of your brain thinking would be much more impressive than the MEG figure you showed.