Sean Carroll: The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe

I have just finished Sean Carroll’s The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself. Carroll is a theoretical physicist and philosopher who specializes in quantum mechanics, gravity, and cosmology. He is a prolific public speaker, science populariser, and an NSF Distinguished Lecturer. It’s one of the most enjoyable and thoughtful books I’ve read in a long time.

In the book, Carroll brings his considerable erudition, unusual even for a scholar, to bear on a number of salient philosophical topics including: the essence of his poetic naturalism; the non-existence of gods; why the universe exists; the mind-body problem; the extraordinary philosophical implications of quantum field theory; why death is the end; the evolution of consciousness; why we aren’t the point of the universe; neuroscience and freedom; the is-ought problem, and many more.

But I will focus on the last part of the book, which covers meaning, morality, and purpose. Carroll argues that while such concepts aren’t a part of the Core Theory of quantum fields they are real nonetheless. In other words, they aren’t built into the structure of the world but “they emerge as ways of talking about our human-scale environment.” But this doesn’t mean that the search for meaning is another kind of science. Instead, searching for a good and meaningful life is about evaluating and judging how we ought to live.

Most importantly, meaning is not derived from Gods, built into the universe itself, nor is it some transcendent aspect of reality. Rather, it is found inside the world. Meaning is a concept that humans invent to talk about the world—real but invented by us—just like the “rules of basketball or bathtubs, or novels.” As Carroll writes, “it’s up to you, me, and every other person to create meaning for ourselves.”

Now some people worry that if values and purpose and meaning aren’t objective then they aren’t real or don’t matter. But whether you are moved by the belief that such things are objective or not, you can still value and care and love. You can help the less fortunate because you think that’s what God wants you to do or because you just think it’s the right thing to do.

A second worry is how to start creating meaning in a universe that doesn’t tell us how to do it. Carroll addresses such worries by appealing to our basic biology, with our desire to “move, process information, and interact with our environment.” We have desires, we care “about ourselves, about other people, about what happens in the world.” We can reflect on our desires and change them; our desires “make us who we are.” And from our desires, we construct the meaning and purpose of our lives. “The world, and what happens in the world, matters. Why? Because it matters to me. And to you.” Starting with our personal desires we may even find meaning in something larger than ourselves.

Carroll’s thought is especially characterized by wonder; he is passionately curious about how the universe works. What is important is to try to understand reality. In order to do so we might tell the story of a God who created both the universe and us and with whom we will (hopefully) be reunited after death. He understands the appeal of this story and the desire to reconcile it with modern science.

But Carroll thinks a different story is much more likely to be true. The universe is no miracle, it simply is. It has evolved “from a state of low entropy toward increasing complexity, and it will eventually wind down to a fearless equilibrium.” This unguided process brought creatures such as ourselves into being, and with us “meaning and mattering into the world.” This may not totally satisfy us, “but it fits comfortably with what science has taught us about nature.” Given this realistic view of reality, reflection reveals that it is up to us to make life what we want it to be.

Carroll grants that such a view of reality “calls for a bit of fortitude” and may bring about “the need for some existential therapy.” Floating in a purposeless universe we wonder what it’s all about. But that same universe is knowable and trying to understand it can be extraordinarily rewarding and meaningful.

In the end “we all share the same universe, the same laws of nature, and the same fundamental task of creating meaning and mattering for ourselves and those around us in the brief moment of time we have in the world.”

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5 thoughts on “Sean Carroll: The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe

  1. Looks like I will need to get this book. And read it in contrast with what he wrote earlier.

  2. I enjoyed this summary of Carroll’s thoughts and your own take on it , especially his treatment of the Universe as an “IS.” It’s pretty evident that this Universe wasn’t designed/created for our amusement. We weren’t present at its beginnings and I seriously doubt we’ll be here at its end. We’re merely a lucky evolutionary species along for the ride. But what does this mean? For me, it represents ultimate Freedom. The ability to write your own history and find meaning vs Obeyance simply to others’ rules and myths. Viewed like this, “Freedom’s are not just another word for nothing left to lose.” It’s liberating; not a bumper sticker.

  3. When reading Carroll”s initial writing on this big picture., I imagined he might say more. His work, From Infinity to Here, was seminal. There is something about introspection that substantiates consciousness. Whether or not he is talking about that in the new book, I will have to discern on my own.

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