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

Sean Carroll’s The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself made it onto my reading list because of another theoretical physicist, Sabine Hossenfelder, who reviewed it mid-2016. I’m reading it now because I need my regular fix of sciencey, astrophysics stuff and it seemed to compliment the other stuff I’m reading at the moment (also all the other science books on my list are textbook affairs with commensurate eye-bleeding price).

I have to say from the outset I’m not the imaginary audience for The Big Picture, nor am I especially enjoying it. I wish I was because I enjoy the hell out of what he writes about, and appreciate he can do hard science without pissing all over philosophy and the humanities, unlike quite a few popular atheist science bros. He manages to rope in Wittgenstein (who is always wholly relevant and informative in any situation), my dear favourite Leibniz gets a go for calculus, as well as best of all possible worlds, and principle of sufficient reason; he even manages to have an entire chapter on gender and identity and I’m showing my age here but I’m still pleasantly surprised when I see how unremarkable these matters have become — even in the last decade, in fields not explicitly feminism/queer/gender studies/etc.

So why am I not enjoying it so much? It could be the recurrence of disproving Laplace’s and/or Descartes’ demons, or explaining from extrapolations of different parts of physics the impossibility of (or at least extremely unlikely) things like mind-body duality, having a soul, life after death, god. Which makes it an invaluable book for people who themselves have questions and doubts about these subjects, but from my personal experience kinda useless in persuading even the most casual of ‘spiritual’ types to give up their astrology.

I used to be a much more diligent atheist, until atheism was taken over by white hetero bro New Atheism colonialism and ruined it for the rest of us. I like Caroll in this regard because he isn’t absolutist. Paraphrasing here, he says while nothing we see or know about the universe requires a god, nonetheless that does not preclude one (or many), just that if there was a god or gods, they would have to adhere to the laws of physics like the rest of us do — as far as we can tell by the current, pretty bloody good state of our understanding of physics. He also says that irrespective of the existence or not of god or gods, religion serves a cultural purpose spanning millennia that saying “God doesn’t exist, because physics” isn’t going to miraculously cause mass conversion to atheism.

For a white, hetero male writing on the Big Questions — historically the domain of self-congratulatory alpha males — he’s done a banger of a job of steering through all that anachronistic baggage. But steer through that he does, stopping off along the way to describe then disabuse us of what’s fundamentally a Christian, or Christian-derived view of the universe.

Maybe it’s because he tries to cover so much that it feels to me he paraphrases philosophers’ and scientists’ ideas so they read like, “close enough”, as with describing Lucretius’ concept of the clinamen (which I don’t think he actually named, but was what he was describing), or Leibniz’ ideas. Or maybe it’s that he holds on somewhere to an uncritical belief that physics is above all this and is the one neutral — as well as correct — way of viewing and understanding the world. The correct part, sure, as far as we can tell now, but neutral? I wonder if some of the hostility directed at 20th century philosophers by scientists (which again, he isn’t doing) is because the logic in pointing out that language creates the world is pretty solid. Whether it’s Wittgenstein, Derrida, or others, even after throwing out whatever bollocks they wrote, we’re left with this. And to have a bunch of soft humanities academics repeatedly and in various ways tell the hard scientists their rationality and neutrality is dubious at best, because language is a limit on describing and experiencing the world, is going to get messy.

It’s not even a question of agreeing or not with him. Newtonian physics? Yup, same for Einstein’s relativity, general or special. Quantum mechanics also. It might be that I find the experimental side of things lacking by comparison to the theoretical. For example observations of cosmic microwave background by COBE, WMAP, and Planck observatories currently provide the best evidence for, and more or less confirm the Big Bang theory, specifically the inflationary model. Questions such as “What is the universe?” “Where did it come from?” “What was there before it existed?” while not definitively answered are comprehensively narrowed down. The discovery of the predicted Higgs Boson at the Large Hadron Collider and concurrent lack of discovery of new particles also set limits on possibilities, or at least pushed various other competing theories to do some heavy re-theorising. But mentions of these experiments seem sparse compared to Descartes and his cogito ergo sum. More of the former and less of the latter would have moved things along far more enjoyably.

But maybe all this, multiverses, the Planck era, macroscale quantum theory are too advanced for the intended reader, like introducing all the exceptions to the rules before explaining why the rules as are they are and where they came from. For my imagined intended audience, then: it’s comprehensive and brings together a lot of threads of physics from the history of Western science and philosophy that make it a good general introduction. It’s kinda boring though. I’d rather read Sabine Hossenfelder or Ethan Siegel, whenever they get around to writing a book.

Finally, the history of Western science since the Enlightenment has been one marked by arrogance, overreach and the worst of humanity given legitimacy through its declaration of rationalism. And one marked by frequent declarations of , “Yeah, we learnt our ethical lesson, we’ve got it right this time,” before cocking it up again. I’m not sure there can be a grand Theory of Everything, which is what Carroll is proposing. Like Mark Zuckerberg imagining he can reduce people and their desires to code, or transhumanists imagining they can upload their minds, it speaks of a smallness in understanding the world and a meanness in how they value it. There is always something that remains, that cannot be assimilated, a residue this reductionism cannot account for and cannot consume.

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