21 October 2016


Sean Carroll. The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself. One World, 2016.

You can’t say that cosmologist Sean Carroll isn’t ambitious, at least in the subtitle. However this book really does not go into the origin of the universe, still less the multiverse, but does discuss the core principles of modern physics, the possible origins of life and the hard problem of consciousness.
He adopts a position that he calls poetic naturalism, which basically means talking about things at an appropriate level while acknowledging there is a unitary natural world, that is, in at least some sense, physical.

Carroll was once interested in the paranormal but now takes the view that the likelihood of there being anything in it is so small it is not even worth conducting the experiments on it. He makes the reasonable point that if there were still unexplored forces that operated in the realm of ordinary human experience we would have detected them in scientific experiments. Of course critics might reply that if anomalies were detected it is likely that they would be attributed to experimental error. The problem I have with the idea that everything is so well known that we don’t even have to do the experiments is that in the mid-nineteenth century everyone knew that atoms were indivisible, it was in the definition. The idea of splitting the atom into components made no sense at all and was quite beyond the energy levels accessible to say Michael Faraday, yet it is the nature of these then hidden components that makes the world the way it is.

Carroll, is I think on stronger ground in his dismissal of Cartesian Dualism, excellent and quite modern sounding arguments against which were made by Elizabeth Simmern van Pallandt, a much brainier cousin of Charles II (had there been sexual equality in the seventeenth century her mother would have become Elizabeth II (or possibly III) of England and there would have been no Civil Wars or Cromwell). Whether he is equally on strong grounds in his treatment of the “hard problem of consciousness” is less certain.

In the final part of the book where he discusses matters of ethics he is on even shakier ground and is danger of sliding into scientism. In general this is not one of those glib popular science books and at times requires real concentration and attention. – Peter Rogerson

1 comment:

David Evans said...

I think you do Carroll a slight injustice. He would admit that we don't know all the details of the physics which operates below the level of human experience, and which we can study only by building huge particle accelerators such as the Large Hadron Collider. But just because of that it is very unlikely that such unknown physics can explain human "paranormal" experiences. There are no particle accelerators in the human brain or in haunted houses!