May 26, 2016


The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself. By Sean Carroll. Dutton. $28.

     The ability to explain science, math, medicine and other complicated and technical topics in language that non-specialists can understand is very, very rare. The ability to do so while also looking at what these highly abstruse topics mean is rarer still. All of which makes California Institute of Technology theoretical physicist Sean Carroll very rare indeed. In The Big Picture, Carroll tackles the complex and difficult and makes it comparatively simple and reasonably understandable for the third time, after From Eternity to Here and The Particle at the End of the Universe. This time Carroll tries to use science to answer a philosophical, even spiritual question: do our lives matter? Anyone who thinks such a query is not the proper province of scientific investigation has not encountered Carroll yet.

     Carroll firmly believes that human lives do matter, but not in any simple or simplistic way. “We are not the reason for the existence of the universe,” he states directly, but we are still “special within it.” Why? Not because we are the creations of an anthropomorphic divinity – which would, in any case, not necessarily be a good thing: “Many people may be comforted by the idea of a powerful being who cares about their lives, and who determines ultimate standards of right and wrong behavior. Personally, I am not comforted by that at all – I find the idea extremely off-putting. I would rather live in a universe where I am responsible for creating my own values and living up to them the best I can, than in a universe in which God hands them down, and does so in an infuriatingly vague way.” Readers may accept or argue with Carroll here – and elsewhere – but he does make his biases plain, and he acknowledges them as biases and states that he is aware they may skew his thinking.

     What, then, does show us that our lives matter? Carroll looks for answers to his own research in the relationship between emerging complexity over time and increasing entropy (the second law of thermodynamics), also over time. This is a genuinely fascinating notion, since entropy is taught, and generally regarded, as relating to increasing disorganization – but evolution, both of living creatures and of the universe itself, undeniably leads to states of greater complexity, human beings being one such development. Carroll explains this by showing, for example, how randomness and apparent disorganization – the role of chance variation and mutation – are central to Darwin's theory of natural selection: what seems disorganized and, from one perspective, actually is, turns out to be increasingly organized when viewed from a different angle. Carroll is expert at finding the various viewing angles and at explaining them in language that flirts with the poetic when it is not being resolutely matter-of-fact.

     Indeed, the paradigm that Carroll recommends for understanding the world is called poetic naturalism, and his argument in The Big Picture is that this is the way to allow science, philosophy, wonder, mystery, joy, purpose and meaning to coexist without the necessity of a godlike being but without being dismissive of those who consider such a being fundamental. Interestingly, poetic naturalism turns on the notion of vocabulary. We have different ways, Carroll says, to talk about quantum events than about those on a human scale – which is certainly true if one compares Newtonian and Einsteinian formulations. We have still other ways of discussing things at the cosmic level. The various stories we tell ourselves, Carroll argues, are both meaningful and correct within their assigned contexts – but words used in a certain way in one context may mean something entirely different when used in another.

     This is complex thinking, but no less helpful for its difficulty. At the atomic level, words such as “meaning” and “purpose” have no referents. But there can be a “purpose” for simple, more-complex, still-more-complex, and eventually human organisms. Same word, different meanings – that is Carroll’s point. It follows from this formulation that errors such as creationism and “intelligent design” involve contextual misuses of words whose meanings are being applied inappropriately.

     Carroll himself is expert at finding pointed and informative ways to use words – his discussion of “stable planets of belief” and “habitable planets of belief” is one example among many. At the same time, he tends to lapse periodically into language that is second nature to him but that readers may find confusing: “We aspire to be perfect Bayesian abductors, impartially reasoning to the best explanation….” But readers who get caught up in the swift flow of Carroll’s prose will rarely find these forays into technical terminology off-putting.

     What is particularly attractive in The Big Picture is not its bigness but the small ways in which Carroll makes his points. Consider a mere nine-word sentence: “Science is a technique, not a set of conclusions.” That is a marvelously pithy formulation whose implications, Carroll shows, allow scientific thinking to go anywhere at all – even to supernatural explanations of events. Carroll has no fear of using the technique, alloyed with his explanatory clarity, to pursue grand questions in biology, neuroscience, astrophysics, mathematics, as well as philosophy and religion. “Understanding how the world works, and what constraints that puts on who we are, is an important part of understanding how we fit into the big picture,” writes Carroll. The Big Picture is a bracing, thoughtful, well-argued, perceptive and always fascinating attempt to attain and communicate an understanding of who and what we are, in what context we live, and, yes, for what purpose.

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