The Big Picture: Paperback Day

I presume most readers of this blog have already purchased their copy of The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself. If you’re really dedicated, you have the hardback version and the ebook and the audiobook, as well as a few spare copies stashed here and there in case of emergency.

Today we’re happy to announce that you can finally complete your set by purchasing the paperback edition of TBP. The cover is even shinier than before! Paperbacks, as we all know, make great gifts, whether as romantic tokens for the special someone in your life, or gestures of conciliation toward your bitter enemies.

I have to confess that I not only had great fun writing this book, but have been quite gratified by its reception. Of course there were doubters — and regretfully, most of the doubters have seemed to argue against their own preconceptions of what they thought the book would say, rather than what it actually did say. But a good number of people have not only enjoyed the book, but engaged with its ideas in a serious way. Here are some reviews that came out after hardcover publication a year ago:

In case you still aren’t sure what the book is about (it’s about matching the fundamental laws of nature to the world of our everyday experience), here are the brief discussions of the individual sections we had right here on the blog:

  1. Part One: Cosmos
  2. Part Two: Understanding
  3. Part Three: Essence
  4. Part Four: Complexity
  5. Part Five: Thinking
  6. Part Six: Caring

Or if you’re more audiovisually inclined, a talk I gave at LogiCal-LA back in January of this year:

Thanks to everyone who has bought the book and engaged with it in thoughtful ways. It’s been a great ride.

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43 Responses to The Big Picture: Paperback Day

  1. Ben Goren says:


    I very, very much enjoyed reading it, and got a lot out of it. It’s good to know that you had even more fun writing it — which, given how informative, entertaining, insightful, and even playful the book is, doesn’t surprise me in the least.

    My one-and-only disagreement with you continues to be over “Free Will,” and I’d encourage you to get together with Sam Harris for his take. He can do an excellent job at guiding you to the point where you can objectively observe for yourself that you don’t even have a subjective illusion of “Free Will” — never mind disputes over how “Free Will” is supposed to manifest within the laws of physics.

    Anyway, I’ve recommended the book to many and loaned it to one, and the comments I’ve gotten from others have been universally highly positive. I don’t know how you personally measure the success of a book…but, if this book isn’t a roaring success, then no book has ever succeeded.



  2. Nick Strauss says:

    Well yes, now I probably will need to go and order the paperback to go with the hardback, the Kindle edition, and the audiobook… FYI, the embedded video player doesn’t appear in the email version of this post (that’s a pretty typical behavior in my experience) – it may help to include a regular link out to the video in addition to the embedded link so folks can watch it directly form the email without having to hop over to the blog. Cheers

  3. I had reviewed The Big Picture for Skeptical Briefs, the newsletter of Committee of Skeptical Inquiry. It’s available online:
    The book is very great indeed.


  4. Neil says:

    Congratulations. But between my hard cover for posterity and my ebook for portability, I think I’ve got my bases covered.

  5. zarzuelazen says:

    I have the Kindle edition. I highly recommended the book – well worth repeated reading. In particular, the connection between thermodynamics and perception of the arrow of time shows substantial promise towards explaining consciousness. Interesting that classical thermodynamics was mainly about systems at equilibrium, whereas non-equilibrium thermodynamcics is still a young science with much room for development…and the recent discovery of ‘time crystals’ could be a strong hint here….

    I still think some important issues were being swept under the rug however. Materialism and reductionism were *implicit* in the book, whereas these issues are open to question. There is ‘Big Picture’ in the title, but not enough attention given to how mathematical and mental properties can fit into physics.

    I’m persuaded that materialism is probably correct, but I still don’t think the picture is as simple as Ben was making out in the forum discussions. There is more to mathematics than just a descriptive language; even though math is probably ‘physical’ in some sense (it’s embedded in the physical world somehow), it still has a distinct ontological reality in my view. Same with mental properties – yes, they’re probably physical, but I would still question the emergence story.

    In short, I’m an ontological realist with regards to mathematics , physics and mind. There are 3 distinct ontological categories. Yes, it looks like they’re all physical, but I’m still inclined to think they’re fundamental. So I still question reductionism.

    There’s definitely scope for a sequel to Big Picture! It would be great to see a sequel that tackles some of the fun controversial issues like the nature of mathematics, computation and information – simulation arguments, ‘It-From-Bit’ and so on. And the multiverse ideas like MWI and inflation.

    The ‘Big Picture’ has got me interested in the nature of time and whether time could be fundamental. I can’t shake the idea that there could be more than one type of time…the notion of multiple time dimensions is very intriguing. More on these topics please!

  6. Simon Packer says:

    ‘Of course there were doubters — and regretfully, most of the doubters have seemed to argue against their own preconceptions of what they thought the book would say, rather than what it actually did say.’

    Guilty as charged. I’ll have to buy it now.

  7. Simon Packer says:

    There are some familiar names here…hello gentlemen!
    Ben says Sam Harris argues ‘…………..observe for yourself that you don’t even have a subjective illusion of “Free Will”’
    I don’t know how you decide someone else’s subjective experience, illusion or otherwise. To mix metaphors it sounds a bit hyperbolically fascist to me. But then I believe in the objective reality of individual consciousness.
    And Zarzuelazen, would you be telling me I don’t need to read the book if I’m not a materialist-reductionist?
    I am rather belatedly reading Penrose ‘The Emperor’s New Mind’, recently re-printed. He is saying (I think) that reductionism may apply but we don’t have enough math or physics to do it properly. Which probably raises a load of issues we had a go at last time here.

  8. Robin says:

    I wonder if Sean Carroll ever wrote a book.

  9. zarzuelazen says:


    I can vouch for ‘The Big Picture’ – definitely a lot better than I thought it would be. Well worth reading. Debates about materialism etc. are somewhat peripheral to the main topic of the book, but I do think materialism/reductionism are implied background assumptions that could be questioned.

    I’ve changed my views about some philosophical issues since last year- I’ve now fully come around to a physicalist position. However I’m still not convinced by reductionism/emergence as regards mental or mathematical properties. So my current position is non-reductive physicalism.

    Penrose’s books are definitely worth reading as well, but Penrose’s stuff is heavy going – very technical, tough for laymen. Strong arguments for mathematical Platonism. I’ve moved away from the Platonist position though, to the weaker position of mathemtical realism (I still think math is objectively real, but embedded in the physical world somehow).

    It occurred to me that if you add an extra time dimension, you can explain mathematical and mental properties inside a physical framework.

    Think of the phase changes from ice >water > steam for example. That’s caused by temperature changes along one time dimension.

    Now here’s the trick: add a *second* time dimension and consider that there’s something analogous to ‘temperature’ that can change along that 2nd time dimension. Then math>matter>mind could be considered phase changes in 2-dimensional time!

  10. Andrew Fenus says:

    Yours is an excellent book that have have read and reread. Interestingly, Sean, your book dovetails and complements very well with Tuval Harari’s “Sapiens”, and his newest “Home Deus”. Congratulations.

  11. Simon Packer says:


    I agree Roger Penrose is somewhat technical in general, but the sort of books with no equations in end up very convoluted and wordy to me, perhaps because my math is better than layman and I find an equation easier to absorb than the verbal close equivalent. His style of writing is very ‘mathematical’ in terms of being constantly conscious of the need for rigor in developing arguments and proofs. It can be heavy going for that reason too. I find ‘some equations’ books easier than ‘no equations’ or ‘showcase equations only’ ones though. ‘The Emperor’s New Mind’ most certainly requires concentration but is actually relatively mild mathematically. ‘The Road to Reality’ is another matter and would cover a lot of some fairly decent undergrad math courses. In general, I think the subject area and degree of analytic abstraction required by readers of even popular physics books is such that the reader who gets through them is extremely likely to ‘get’ at least simple equations.

    I’m basically where I was before in terms of philosophical matters. I’m fairly mainstream Christian with an interest in what we see from within the human experience and where it currently fades out into uncertainty, whether due to or for other reasons. I’m confident God sees ‘The Big Picture’. He also sees how we see it, i.e. as viewed through any paradigm man has delineated, with man’s gifts and resources.

    I’m not sure I follow your extra time dimension idea. Trying to formally parameterize ‘type of reality’ using mind-matter-math as a basis would be an interesting if probably recalcitrant exercise! Incidentally Oxford mathematician John Lennox says there is a difference with metaphysics between ‘law’ and ‘agency’. That is a nod to ‘mind’ being a supra-physical commodity. In his case that’s also in a Christian belief framework.

    I would say consciousness is a God-given commodity not understood within math or physics at present. Roger Penrose might perhaps disagree only about the ‘God-given’ bit. His ‘Mind’ book develops the idea that there are areas where present mathematical and computational formalism give out.

  12. zarzuelazen says:


    Penrose develops the idea that new physics is needed to explain his ‘3 worlds’ (math, mind, matter). I’m inclined to agree with the general need for new physics, I just disagree with his specific theory (basically he thinks new quantum mechanical effects in the brain are involved in consciousness, which is a fascinating idea but seems somewhat implausible to me).

    I see religion (including Christianity) as providing a way to organize society and guidelines to live your life – it’s more about ethics and moral law . I don’t think we should try to draw conclusions about physics from it.

    When thinking about consciousness, it’s important to remember that the definition of ‘physical’ has changed over time, sometimes quite radically – think about Einstein’s theories for example, a radical shift in ontology from Newton. So even though ‘consciousness’ might not fit into the current physics framework, I do think that a suitably radical shift in perspective might be able to provide a physical explanation.

    As regards my own idea of 2-dimensional time:

    Time is represented by a complex number plane, with x-axis (real numbers), and y-axis (imaginary numbers). The x-axis represents the thermodynamic state of a system – simply normal thermodynamic ‘entropy’, a way of marking a point in time according to the state the system is in. The y-axis represents a new, unknown type of ‘entropy’ intended to represent the state of a system as a point along a 2nd time dimension. So a point in 2-dimensional time would be a vector representing the thermodynamic state of a system.

    The idea is that math, matter and mind are thermodynamic phases of ‘existence’, exactly analogous to the phases of H20 (steam, water, ice). As the universe evolves in 2-dimensional time (represented by a graph on the complex number plane), it can undergo phase shifts to move through the 3-phases of existence (math, matter and mind).

  13. Robin says:

    The illusion of free will is that, when you consider two choices, for example your finger is poised above “OK” and “Cancel” it seems that you could do either. It doesn’t seem that one of those choices is already impossible because you can’t see why either would be impossible. If we have no free will then at least one of the choices is already impossible even when we seem to be deciding between them.

    Could Sam Harris show that we don’t even have the illusion of this choice? I doubt it.

    The problem is the weird way Harris seems to be defining free will. The way he describes it free will seems to entail omnipotence and omniscience, the ability never to be mentally ill and the knowledge of all possible alternatives.

    Well of course we don’t have free will defined that way. We can’t stop ourselves having a mental disorder. Whoever suggested we could? We can’t know every possible alternative when making a choice. Again, whoever suggested we could?

  14. Simon Packer says:


    I haven’t got far enough in his book to know the Penrose model of consciousness, although I think he touched on these things in ‘Road’. If Lennox is wrong, and there is indeed a reconciliation to be had between ‘physical law’ and ‘agency’, then agency may be derived from law using some form of algorithmic or other deterministic scheme. I don’t think so personally.

    I see Christianity as final all encompassing reality, the eternal Christ having made the physical cosmos, having also defined the mathematical underpinning thereof and probably the math itself (I asked Lennox that one last year). Correct morality is the contextual outcome of the life and character of God.

  15. zarzuelazen says:

    Posting a summary of my current model of consciousness. The ideas were certainly inspired by ‘The Big Picture’. Hopefully getting close to Nobel prize territory here, just need Sean to work out the math 😉

    Note: For my theory to work, 2-dimensional time is needed. You simply can’t define a ‘time flow’ with only one time-scale, since there’s nothing to compare it with. As an analogy, to define the relative velocity of a car, you need at least 2 cars.

    Without further ado, the solution to consciousness!

    “Consciousness is the flow of time itself, present to some degree in everything (it’s ubiquitous). The rate of entropy dissipation defines a ‘time flow’. Think of time as river – in some parts of the river, the water is flowing slowly – not much consciousness. In other parts of the river, the water is roaring past very fast – lots of consciousness.

    It’s a mistake to think that there are ‘things’ out there. There are only ‘processes’. Consider a tornado – it’s actually a dynamical system – what from a distance looks like a ‘thing’, up close is revealed as all swirling and flowing wind (‘a time flow’). Everything is just like the tornado. No fixed things, only flows.

    So what is a ‘time flow’? It’s simply a repeated pattern of events in time. Now patterns can exist at many different scales. And there’s a particular type of pattern known as a ‘fractal’ that looks the same at any scale you look at it – a self-similarity property – you could zoom in and zoom out, it looks just the same. The greater the scale, the stronger the pattern. Only here we’re talking about patterns in time, rather than in space.

    The human brain is just a really powerful fractal time-flow – time is flowing very fast and strong in the brain, because a huge number of patterns of events have combined to form a really strong fractal that gets magnified from the neuronal level all the way up to the level of the whole brain.”

    And that’s consciousness!

  16. Simon Packer says:

    Approached using our own mathematical logic I think final attempts at understanding ourselves are likely to be unsuccessful and/or to result in delusional outcomes. The brain trying to understand itself seems recursive. Einsteinian humility is appropriate. We need revelation from a higher and well-intentioned source.

    Still, I could be wrong. The Carroll-Zarzulazen Effect has a scholarly, almost Nobel-suggestive ring to it. Good luck with the Math.

    I really must buy Dr Carroll’s book!

  17. zarzuelazen says:

    The brain trying to understand itself seems recursive because…er…it is. Human logic may be weak, but unfortunately, advice from spiritual gurus has proven even more unreliable. Given a choice between these two , I’m putting my faith in logic.

    But Simon, there’s room for one more spot on that Nobel prize podium with me and Sean Carroll. I believe a Nobel prize can be shared between three people? Yourself? Ben Goren perhaps? 😉

  18. Simon Packer says:


    I think I’ll let Ben have it. I’m a dissenter after all. They wouldn’t be able to agree on what we won it for.

  19. Robin says:

    Incidentally, despite my little joke earlier, the book is a terrific read. Hope the paperback sales go well. I will think of it for upcoming birthdays, etc.

  20. Simon Packer says:


    Switching to serious mode for the moment….

    ‘Human logic may be weak, but unfortunately, advice from spiritual gurus has proven even more unreliable. Given a choice between these two , I’m putting my faith in logic.’

    I don’t take the average spiritual guru at all seriously either. But neither do I see the Dawkinsian etc style schism between logic and reason on the one hand and the Judeo-Christian God and faith on the other. Neither do people like McGrath, Aczel, Lennox and many others. Neither did say Eddington, Heisenberg or Newton, though the latter handed off to ‘providence’ at times where further rational insight was available. There are historic incidents where reasonable logic has been dismissed on somewhat arbitrary religious grounds, it’s true. But on the whole, this faith/reason divide is something some people have tried to delineate or engineer but it is itself not logical. It is the very thing atheists often say faith is; the product of a narrow, blinkered outlook. Jesus constantly used everyday human logic, say John 4v10. But he also drew the supernatural into his logic, as we can see in that passage. Now I would say the rational evidence for a supernatural parallel realm is pretty strong in the Bible. It is also, unlike many physics speculations, quite accessible to scrutiny by the average non-specialist.

    The logic of God includes human logic but is wider in terms of resource; Jesus spoke about ‘living water’, the Holy Spirit, for example. God’s logic may well also include facets and concepts we haven’t or can’t presently grasp. Like the true framework for the, quite honestly perfectly obvious, reality of consciousness, or the mechanisms behind time.

  21. Lena says:

    Have been waiting for the paperback (is easier for on the road and I read a lot on the train). Ordered and now waiting for arrival 🙂

  22. zarzuelazen says:

    Ben said:

    “you can objectively observe for yourself that you don’t even have a subjective illusion of “Free Will” — never mind disputes over how “Free Will” is supposed to manifest within the laws of physics. ”

    Actually, to borrow a nice phrase from Simon above, it’s ‘quite honestly perfectly obvious’ that I do have free will.

    The fact of the matter is that if you can’t predict what I’m going to do next, then you have to say that I have free-will. If the output of a computation can’t be obtained any faster than actually running the computation, then the computation has ‘free-will’ in every reasonable sense.

    This is where ‘non-reductive physicalism’ can come into play you see. My triple-aspect ontology of information/fields/cognition. The idea is that there is *no* one fundamental level of reality (there is no unified theory of reality as a whole), instead there are 3 complementary levels that simply aren’t fully consistent. So there’s a break-down in reductionism and that’s how you can get ‘free will’ in physics.

  23. Paul Torek says:

    Being recursive need not mean being self-contradictory or wrong. Consider a pie chart with red and blue sections, where the size of the red slice indicates “proportion of this pie chart that is red” and similarly for the blue. (Related, but different, XKCD comic.) That’s recursive in the most degenerate possible way – self-referential – but, far from unsuccessful, it’s guaranteed to be correct.

    Sean rightly connects free will and the power of choices to the arrow of time, but misses an opportunity to give self-reference the emphasis it deserves. “The small differences in a person’s brain state that correlate with different bodily actions typically have negligible correlations with the past state of the universe,” he points out. But it’s precisely in philosophical thought experiments about Laplace’s Demon, etc., that this – along with our intuitive physics – breaks down. To see why, consider this other thought-experiment from Decision Theory:
    Betting on the Past: In my pocket (says Bob) I have a slip of paper on which is written a proposition P. You must choose between two bets. Bet 1 is a bet on P at 10:1 for a stake of one dollar. Bet 2 is a bet on P at 1:10 for a stake of ten dollars. … Before you choose whether to take Bet 1 or Bet 2 I should tell you what P is. It is the proposition that the past state of the world was such as to cause you now to take Bet 2.

    Obviously, the smart thing to do is take Bet 2 and pocket a dollar. Does that mean we’re trying to cause a past event? No, because “causation” doesn’t apply at such an utterly generic level of description as “the past state of the world”. What it does mean is that, unlike most of the past, this aspect of the past is not independent of what we do now. And the same goes for any other fact about the past which stands in such a bijective relationship with what we do now. When we bet on the past like this, we are like the artist of the pie chart I mentioned: we cannot go wrong. If your physics intuition rebels at this and says “but the past is fixed!” your physics intuition is wrong. But as anyone who’s studied relativity or QM knows, our common-sense physics intuitions get plenty wrong; this should come as no surprise.

  24. Paul Torek says:

    In the previous comment I agreed with Sean and encouraged him to go further; now for some disagreement. I’m unconvinced by Sean’s arguments for viewing ethics as separate from naturalistic investigation. The arguments seem to boil down to two: no ought from is, and no foreseeable scientific experiments that bear on ethical questions.

    “No ought from is” says that one cannot deductively derive “ought” conclusions without “ought” premises. That’s quite true, but no big deal. Sean’s whole poetic naturalism is about the fact that we have multiple discourses, whose terms cannot be derived from each other. For example, chairs are clearly physical objects, but any attempt to define “chair” in terms of configurations of particles in the Standard Model would be absurd. We do sometimes get definitions that relate concepts at different levels, e.g. “current” and “electrons”, but those definitions are always the (tentative, try it on and see if it works) result of extensive observations.

    In Gifford Lecture 5 Sean says that there are no experiments that provide evidence for or against ethical claims. But how could he know? Imagine asking scientists from 200 years ago, whether cosmology is or ever could be a science. I expect most would have said, “No, that will always be part of theology or philosophy.” It is very risky to try to rule out in advance, what can never be subject to scientific investigation.

    But more importantly, we already know some experiments that bear on ethical questions. Suppose I tell Sam, “eating carrots is good for you, not just for humans in general, but you in particular, Sam.” So Sam tries carrots, and notes that they taste horrible. Then he looks up nutritional information, and finds that all nutrients in carrots can also be found in various other foods. He tries kale, red peppers, and other things, and settles on a diet that does not include carrots. Furthermore, as far as we can tell, Sam is very rational and well-informed.

    This experiment shows, to a reasonable level of confidence, that I was wrong. Eating carrots is not good for Sam. It doesn’t improve his life.

    That’s not an “ought” statement, but it’s an evaluative, ethical statement (and bears on ought statements).

    For what it’s worth, I agree with Sean that morality is a human construction. I even agree that there are aspects of invention, not just discovery, to it. But there are aspects of discovery as well.

  25. zarzuelazen says:

    Exactly right Paul, the ‘can’t derive ought from is’ as an argument against objective ethics is actually a total non-sequitur in the context of poetic naturalism, since indeed as you point out, no higher-level concepts are strictly derivable from lower-level ones anyway.

    We have to distinguish between ethics and meta-ethics (and meta-meta ethics). I agree that it’s probably true that specific prescriptions for how to live your live are human constructs (that is to say, object-level ethics is indeed probably socially constructed). But in my view, at higher levels of abstraction, what starts to look like objective principles for reasoning about ethics do indeed appear.

    If you go to the field of game and decision theory, those principles are indeed as mathematically precise and objective as physics. And if you really push to the outer limits of current game-decision theory (if you really strain your vision and squint very hard), it does appear that something that looks like objective ethical principles is starting to emerge – I’m thinking here of principles derived from thinking about the prisoners dilemma for example, something like Hofstadter’s super-rationality.

    Ponder my A-Z wikipedia page of central concepts in the knowledge domain ‘Axiology’:

    These certainly look like objective principles of meta-ethics. In particular, I think the concepts of ‘Beauty’, ‘Liberty’ and ‘Perfection’ might all be objectively definable.